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House Passes College Access and Opportunity Act

April 5, 2006

The House of Representatives significantly narrowed college cost control provisions before it passed the College Access and Opportunity Act (HR 609), its version of the Higher Education Act reauthorization, on March 30. For more than two years, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) has championed establishing a new College Affordability Index (CAI) as a measure of the rate of increase in tuition and fees. The index, which looks at the percentage increase in tuition and fees over three years divided by the change in the consumer price index, would be posted to the National Center for Education Statistics College Opportunities Online Web site for each institution. The CAI survived changes to the bill, but less burdensome consequences would be imposed on institutions with high scores and fewer institutions would be affected than with the bill’s earlier versions.

Noteworthy Changes

McKeon’s revisions to an earlier version of HR 609 eliminated requirements for institutions with scores greater than 2.0 to submit management and action plans to the Department of Education along with an explanation of factors contributing to the price increases. Institutions would have been required to identify specific steps they were taking to reduce future increases and a schedule for doing so.

The institutions with the highest CAIs that would have to convene quality-efficiency task forces went from 25 percent to 10 percent under McKeon’s changes, then down to 5 percent in the final version under an amendment by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas). The quality-efficiency task forces would be made up of administrators and business and civic leaders and could include faculty, students, alumni, and parents. They would be charged with reviewing operations and analyzing costs in comparison with similar institutions, identifying areas where the institution operated more expensively, and providing in-depth analysis of cost-reduction opportunities. The task force’s report would be submitted to the Department of Education.

The bill was stripped of most consequences for institutions that failed to bring their CAI below 2.0 within two years. Earlier versions included onerous reporting on “all costs and expenditures,” notification to the institution’s accreditors, and potential review by the department’s inspector general. Now institutions would be publicly placed on “affordability alert status” unless they were low-cost or exceeded the threshold by $500 or less.

  Other changes to the bill included:

  • eliminating a provision that would have prohibited colleges from refusing to accept transfer credits based on the accreditation of the sending institution;
  • dropping a new formula to redistribute campus-based aid; and
  • authorizing matching grants to help institutions pay for fire detection and prevention systems installation.

Defeated Amendments

Two amendments were met with strong opposition from the higher education community and were rejected by the House. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) wanted to make any university that received funds under the Title VI international programs report to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System all gifts and contributions. His stated concern was “millions and millions of dollars” flowing into colleges and universities for “espousing Middle Eastern positions and Middle Eastern studies.” Another defeated amendment, proposed by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), would have required colleges and universities that consider race or ethnicity in admissions decisions to submit volumes of raw admissions data and reports and analyses of policies to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Awaiting Resolution

The Senate passed a reauthorization bill last fall and appended it to the budget reconciliation bill. Some provisions, notably those affecting the student loan programs and instituting the Academic Competitiveness and SMART grants programs, were included in the bill. New action on a Senate version of the reauthorization, which will need to go to conference with the House, is pending. With the Higher Education Act reauthorization running behind schedule, Congress passed another short-term extension through June.