The House overwhelmingly approved last night a bill authorizing a 50 percent increase in federal aid to higher education. The $50 billion package, approved 385 to 15, would aid one in every three American college students over the next five years.
If passed largely intact by the Senate, as is expected, the measure would provide students with larger grants with loans that would pay a greater share of their tuition.
The Carter administration remains opposed to what it calls excessive funding in the bill for the basic grant program for college students. An amendment added during floor debate by Rep. John H. Buchanan (R-Ala.) earlier this week cut that program by $652 million, but administration lobbyists said it is still too high by about $2 billion.
Funding levels are expected to be the main point of contention once the authorization reaches the Senate. Otherwise, little challenge is expected to this bill that in earlier years produced big battles in Congress.
The House measure, in fact, was little different from the one that emerged smoothly from committee last month.
It would streamling administrative structure for student loans and grants, offering more flexible terms and easier access than in the past. But loan collection procedures would be tightened in recognition of the continuing controversy over student loan defaults.
The measure would provide new money for renovation of school buildings, as well as for college libraries and for new and developing institutions. It would increase attention paid to older, foreign and nontraditional students, and provide more incentives for states to fund their own aid programs.
While the bill would raise the authorization, the amount of college aid actually available each year would depend on separate annual appropriations actions by Congress.
The inch-thick package was the product of an unprecedented drive to bring all the traditionally warring higher education factions into agreement.
House education subcommittee leaders managed to win accord on distribution and control of programs for the most part, issues that had long divided the college administrators, their teachers and the students. But the agreement frayed around the edges over money questions.
Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris said the basic grant program funding level presents "serious concerns" at what the Congressional Budget Office estimated was $5.4 billion for fiscal 1981.
In an Oct. 29 letter to Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee, she said that the program remains $1.8 billion above what President Carter thinks is appropriate. She also complained of "uncontrollable costs" in the guaranteed student loan program.
Ford and other defenders, however, challenged the administration figures as unrealistic.
They said the actual basic grant costs may be only about $1 billion over current levels, which reached $3.1 billion this year.
After passage of the measure, Ford said he was "very happy and pleased" by the overwhelming vote. He said he would fight any further attempt at fund-cutting by the Senate. "We're down to bare bones right now," he said. "The administration wants to retreat instead of going forward."
Other controversy centered on the terms of loans to be offered under several different programs. The administration favors changes that would put federal administrators in control of some programs while increasing the interest rate charged to students from the current 3 percent to 7 percent.
A Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Henry Bellmon (R-Okla.) would do more or less the same thing. This is expected to be a major focus of debate when the House measures comes up in committee there sometime next month, since the House version would hold the interest rate at 3 percent and leave colleges in charge of program control.