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House-Senate Conference on Higher Education Begins

March 6, 2008

With the House passage of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 (H.R. 4137), Congress has taken a key step toward updating large portions of the Higher Education Act (HEA). While many provisions of the law have been modified in recent years, largely through the annual budget process, many of the act’s policies have been awaiting final congressional action for almost six years.

The Senate approved its version of the legislation in July 2007, and the two bills can now be compared and a final compromise version negotiated by House and Senate leaders. The current version of the law is slated to expire on March 31, and a significant effort to complete negotiations in advance of this deadline is expected.

As the legislation has moved through the House and Senate, a number of helpful provisions have been included that should remain in any final agreement. Among the provisions are: rules to allow students to receive Pell Grants throughout the calendar year; modifications to the Academic Competitiveness Grant program that will allow part-time students and those seeking certificates to receive funding; and a new loan fund to provide needed resources to colleges and universities damaged by natural disasters, such as the 2005 hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region.

Both the House and Senate legislation, however, contain numerous new reporting requirements for colleges and universities. The American Council on Education has calculated that the House committee-approved version includes more than 220 new reporting requirements―and several more were added during floor consideration of the bill―while the Senate bill includes approximately 150.

Similarly, both versions of the legislation include a college price "watch list" to call public attention to institutions where tuition is rising the fastest. The watch list proposals reflect the latest political response to the heightened public concern about tuition levels. The very first proposals to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, and every version since, have included college cost-related proposals, some more draconian than others. The final compromise is virtually certain to include some tuition-related rules.

Finally, the law’s provisions covering accreditation have been one of the most contentious issues throughout the debate. The compromise language on accreditation included in the House-passed bill, which bars the Department of Education from issuing new accreditation regulations governing academic standards, is strongly opposed by the Department of Education and the White House. The Senate bill includes similar language. These provisions clarify that the Department of Education has no authority to dictate or impose standards on accrediting agencies or schools, and could be a significant sticking point in reaching a final compromise.

NACUBO CONTACT: Matt Hamill, senior vice president, advocacy and issue analysis, 202.861.2529, matt.hamill@nacubo.org.