By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2008
Congress yesterday passed a major overhaul of federal higher-education programs aimed at expanding financial aid and bringing greater clarity and disclosure to the student loan process.
By overwhelming bipartisan votes, the House and Senate approved a five-year reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. It will nearly double the maximum amount of Pell Grants by 2014 and will require the Education Department to collect and publish better data on soaring tuition costs at universities and colleges.
"This legislation will create a higher-education system that is more affordable, fairer and easier to navigate for students and families," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and an architect of the legislation.
The House's vote was 380 to 49; the Senate's was 83 to 8. President Bush has said he will sign the bill into law.
Some Republicans opposed the measure because they think it imposes too many regulations on universities and the private lenders that finance higher education for millions of students.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former secretary of education, piled five cartons into a stack almost five feet high on the Senate floor to illustrate the quantity of existing regulations governing higher education. He said the new legislation would double the pile.
"The greatest threat to higher education isn't underfunding -- it's over-regulation," he said.
But others said the legislation, which took five years to write after the previous act expired in 2003, would start providing benefits to students in time for the coming school year. "It needs to be done before the kids go back to school this fall," Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, told reporters.
Enzi negotiated the final details of the bill with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.). She has been the lead Democrat on education matters while the chairman, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), recuperates from surgery for a brain tumor and undergoes chemotherapy and radiation treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Mikulski said Kennedy continued to play a key role in the negotiations over the bill through regular phone calls and memos from his home. "I talk to Senator Kennedy once a week to give him a report on who's been naughty and who's been nice," she told reporters.
Kennedy plans to return to the Senate and his chairmanship in September after the five-week recess for the national party conventions and a district work period, aides and senators said.
In addition to increasing Pell Grants, the legislation seeks to clarify the application process. One provision, written by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), simplifies a financial aid form by reducing the number of questions asked and mandating it contain more easily understood language. Emanuel said yesterday he has drafted a letter to the Education Department, asking its officials to implement the language as he had intended it. "Do not let the bureaucracy kill this," he said.
The legislation also imposes new regulations on financial institutions that make private loans to students not in the federal student loan program. It requires those lenders to disclose 27 pieces of information, such as mandating lenders to reveal three times in the application process all potential finance charges, late fees, penalties and adjustments to the loan.
It also gives student borrowers up to 30 days to terminate a loan after an application is approved.
The April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, during which campus officials did not alert students to the first shooting incident, inspired another provision. It mandates that universities immediately notify students of emergency situations.
The Higher Education Act follows the passage of a $20 billion bill last year that provided increased funds for expanded Pell Grants and cut interest rates on federally backed tuition loans.