NAICU Washington Update

Senate Moves Higher Education Quickly, but Calls for Controversial Learning Outcome Measures

July 18, 2007

Positioned with their desks in a square, as if ready for a protracted discussion,  members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee quickly dispelled that illusion and dispensed with its two major pieces of higher education legislation in very short order. It was quite clear that Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), HELP chair,  had obtained bipartisan support before entering the room.

Kennedy first took up the reconciliation bill (which has not yet been assigned a bill number) –  a measure, he emphasized, that would make million of dollars available to needy students through an expedited legislative process.  Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), the committee's ranking minority member, agreed it was a good first step in making college affordable and protecting students from bad actors.  It would cut lender subsidies by more than $18 billion to pay for a new "Promise Grant" program that directs funds to the neediest Pell Grant recipients.  (It is unclear why the committee is creating a new program, rather than putting the money into the proven Pell Grant program.)  The bill also expands financial aid eligibility by making changes to several need analysis provisions.  And it creates a $25 million grant program for states, seemingly through savings from a pilot auction for PLUS loans.

The primary opposition to the bill came from Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the former chair of the Budget Committee, who argued that the purpose of the reconciliation bill – to reduce the deficit – was being contorted into a vehicle for student aid.  The bill passed by a vote of 17 to 3, with Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) joining Gregg in opposition.
The committee then unanimously approved the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization bill
(S. 1642), which effectively contains the non-student funding aspects of the legislation.  During the mark-up, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced that he had received a letter from Secretary Spellings in which she agreed to "hit the pause button" on implementation of her controversial new regulations on accreditation. 

Unfortunately, buried in the 534-page Senate bill that was then approved are provisions calling for the same student learning outcome measures that were the source of so much controversy during the recently concluded accreditation negotiated rulemaking process.  (See WIR, 2/28/07, 4/04/07, 5/08/07, 6/12/07.)  The bill does restrict the Secretary's regulatory authority over the measures, but this restriction is beside the point, given the proposed new language of the law itself.  (See accompanying box for the text of the proposal, next page.)  This accreditation language is clearly the most troubling feature of S. 1642. 

In other areas of the bill, the committee was responsive to concerns raised about earlier proposals. The Senate's version of the so-called "Sunshine Provisions" calling for greater transparency regarding student loan transactions – that passed the House by a near-unanimous vote – are tough but manageable for colleges, and would not prohibit trustees' service on other boards.  The provisions include a reasonable ban on gifts for those working in, or with responsibilities for, financial aid.  They also allow college staff and officers to serve on lender advisory boards without compensation other than for reasonable expenses. 

The committee hopes to bring the reconciliation bill to the floor in July.   The HEA reauthorization bill may either be considered at that time, or held until the House acts on its version of HEA later in the year.  The House also plans to move its reconciliation bill (H.R. 2669) in July.  As with the Senate, the House reconciliation bill primarily will be focused on shifting student loan subsidies to more direct aid for borrowers and students, and college cost provisions.


Student Achievement Measures Included in S. 1642

(New language noted in bold.)

(a) CRITERIA REQUIRED.—No accrediting agency or association may be determined by the Secretary to be a reliable authority as to the quality of education or training offered for the purposes of this Act or for other Federal purposes, unless the agency or association meets criteria established by the Secretary pursuant to this section. The Secretary shall, after notice and opportunity for a hearing, establish criteria for such determinations. Such criteria shall include an appropriate measure or measures of student achievement. Such criteria shall require that—

    . . .

    (5)   the standards for accreditation of the agency or association assess the institution's—

        (A) success with respect to student achievement in relation to the institution's mission, which may include different standards for different institutions or programs, through the determination of expected levels of student achievement that are established by the institution, and which use, as appropriate, empirical evidence and external indicators, with respect to criteria regarding—

            (i) student retention rates;

            (ii) course completion rates;

            (iii) program completion and graduation rates;

            (iv) for prebaccalaureate career and technical education programs, degree programs leading to initial professional licensure or certification, and other programs as appropriate—

                (I) results on State licensing examinations; and

                (II) job placement rates;

            (v) as appropriate, other student performance information selected by the institution, particular information—

                (I) used by the institution to evaluate or strengthen the institution's programs; and

                (II)  that reflects the institution's individual mission and the institution's distinct goals for students.  

Note:   Current law requires that the standards assess the institution's "(A) success with respect to student achievement in relation to the institution's mission  including, as appropriate, consideration of course completion, State licensing examinations, and job placement rates;" Another important improvement is the removal of problematic language that would have placed federal requirements on institutional transfer of credit policies.  Instead, the bill merely requires colleges to publish information on their transfer of credit policies and articulation agreements.

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