Congress Is Getting Closer to Higher Education Reauthorization

Published January 1, 2008

The U.S. House Education and Labor Committee has voted unanimously to approve legislation to reauthorize federal higher education programs for the next five years. The bill includes dozens of new federal programs and new financial reporting requirements for colleges and universities.

The U.S. Senate approved a similar higher education reauthorization package in summer 2007.

The College Opportunity and Affordability Act (H.R. 4137), which the House panel approved in November, will create new programs, increase authorization levels for certain aid programs, and implement new federal regulations to require colleges and universities to report financial information and tuition prices.

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the committee, pointed to the new financial disclosure requirements as a key reason he and other Republicans supported the legislation.

“The federal government invests billions in higher education each year to ensure that all Americans are able to pursue a college education and the benefits that come with it. In exchange for that support, these institutions should be held to account for their cost increases,” McKeon explained.

“If we provide a federal investment without accountability, students and taxpayers will be on the losing end of the equation,” McKeon said. “Sunshine is not the only solution, but it is a critical first step.”

Soaring Costs

Dr. Richard Vedder, a distinguished economics professor at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says the legislation does not go nearly far enough in making college more affordable and could cause additional problems.

“The best thing I can say about the House bill on higher education is that it is not as bad as I thought it might be, and that there seems to be a bipartisan concern about soaring costs for attending college,” Vedder said. “The bill makes some modest but positive moves in the direction of promoting greater transparency in college operations.”

Vedder called the regulations designed to contain college cost increases “well-intended and even mildly innovative,” but he warned they could create new problems, such as increased student fees, other non-tuition cost hikes, and possibly increased government control of higher education institutions.

Expanding Government

McKeon likewise expressed concern about components of the legislation that will expand federal involvement in higher education.

“The new programs created in this bill are symptomatic of the larger tendency by Congress to fund any and every program with an inviting name–never mind whether the federal government has any business intervening in these areas in the first place,” McKeon said. “Both parties need to take a step back and realize that when we create new federal programs, we may be worsening the very problems we’re trying to solve.”

But McKeon says the reforms initiated by the new legislation are worth the expansion of federal involvement.

“While I am deeply troubled by the number of new programs created by this bill,” McKeon said, “I am mindful that it contains a number of positive reforms that will benefit students, parents, and taxpayers, and, taken as a whole, I believe its positives outweigh the negatives.”

‘Weaning Students’

Vedder argues more fundamental reforms are needed to address the problem of ever-increasing college tuition costs and falling college productivity.

“We need to start weaning students and institutions from massive government support that invites inefficiency, rent-seeking, and a loss of intellectual independence,” Vedder said. “A good place to start would be to end institutional subsidies and concentrate support on vouchers to students–but only those with very significant financial need.”

Dan Lips ([email protected]) is an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

For more information …

College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 (H.R. 4137):