After five years of committee mark-up and debate, Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the Higher Education Opportunity Act.
The bill passed in the House of Representatives 380-49 and in the Senate 83-8. The Nebraska congressmen all supported the bill, though Sen. Chuck Hagel wasn't present during the vote.
Sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the bill has four major areas of concern: accountability in the cost of higher education, simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, reforming the student loan marketplace in light of recent scandals and expanding grant aid for needy students.
The act addresses technical and specific issues concerning college education, as well as making "massive changes" to the Pell Grant, said Patricia Smith, a higher education consultant to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
"The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act included across-the-board changes that were not handled in the previous reconciliation bill," she said.
The bill requires educational materials such as textbooks, CDs and online codes be available individually as well as in bundled packages.
The top 5 percent of colleges with the greatest cost increases over a three-year time frame will be held accountable by submitting detailed reports to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling explaining the rising costs and the steps taken to control them.
The FAFSA is also getting an overhaul: The seven page application, which Kennedy cited as a cumbersome barrier to low- and middle-income students, will be streamlined into a two-page FAFSA-EZ form, with a five-year phaseout for the current form.
The new FAFSA form would also require updates when needed rather than on a yearly basis. For the first time, Pell Grants will be available year-round for low-income students.
Matt Hammons, director of regulation for the University of Nebraska, said he thinks this provision will impact students in the NU system the most.
The student loan process fell under scrutiny in the new Higher Education Act. The act now requires "colleges that identify 'preferred lenders' to place at least three lenders on the list, and clearly explain to students why the college believes the lender is offering attractive terms and conditions," Kennedy said in a press release.
The bill also extended benefits for military veterans and students with disabilities; strengthened teacher preparation programs at the primary and secondary education levels; and introduced loan forgiveness programs for social service careers like nurses, prosecutors, public defenders and teachers, as well as a mandate to control illegal file-sharing of copyrighted materials.
NU backs act
The NU system, which encompasses the Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney campuses as well as the University of Nebraska Medical Center, was supportive of the final version of the bill, Hammons said.
Both the university and the policy makers who formed the bill had similar goals of greater accountability and transparency.
"We're supportive of the final bill because we felt it was an appropriate balance of information without unduly burdening institutions with more federalized control," Hammons said.
He also said the bill applies to all institutions receiving federal funding or aid, so the changes will be felt at community colleges, private and public colleges and universities nationwide.
Already, he said, NU has taken steps to provide a more comprehensive and accurate expense outlook for students at the Omaha and Kearney campues in an effort called the college portrait accountability program.
The two universities are participating in a joint effort between American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges to provide more information about everything from costs to graduation rates. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's profile isn't active yet, Hammons said.
In his statement issued after the act's passage, NU President J.B. Milliken said he supported "making college access more transparent and affordable," citing UNO's and UNK's participation in the program.
"One of our priorities is to ensure that cost does not prohibit qualified students from earning a degree at the University of Nebraska," Milliken wrote. "Thus, we are investing more in need-based aid and expanding our Tuition Assistance Program so more students from middle class families can afford a college degree."
The problem, Hammons said, is the still unknown level of funding that will be provided to the 60 or so programs authorized in the bill.
"The president and regents are working on an expanded financial assistant system which is dependent on federal support, state support and institutional support," Hammons said.
The university system will have to wait for appropriations from an authorization bill, he said.
This is what UNL political science professor Kevin Smith called The Golden Rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules.
"The federal government is more involved in higher education," Smith said, saying the land-grant universities act is an example. "The federal government also gives out lots of research money with strings attached."
He said the government indirectly funds higher education through Pell Grants and financial aid.
Smith said he couldn't see how Congress could enforce the unbundled sale of textbooks.
"There's a big First Amendment issue there, telling publishers how they can sell their products," he said.
Whether or not it's a violation of the First Amendment or not, Follett Higher Education Group officials, the company that runs the University Bookstore, said they will comply with the new bill and are quite pleased about the money-saving opportunities for students.
"It will be a benefit for the student," said Cliff Ewert, vice president of campus and public relations for Follett. "Students don't have to buy the whole bundle - now they can buy separate pieces."
He said with a bundle, an end-of-semester buy-back can be difficult because discs and codes can't be resold and reused. However, unbundling materials means students can buy used textbooks and new online codes or supplemental CDs, or choose not to buy them.
Ewert encouraged professors to call their bookstores and ask for the market price of their selected educational materials.
Since Follett isn't a publisher, Ewert said the new law wouldn't affect the company detrimentally or change the company's return policy, but "Follett supports any law that will help students control the cost of textbooks."
Neither the state college and university association nor Spellings are holding their breaths about the new bill, which was already five years overdue when it passed.
While the association expressed concerns about the increase in required reporting, Spelling cited the cost of funding 60 new educational programs, which she called "costly and duplicative" in a statement.
She said the act failed to reform accessibility and affordability and didn't strengthen accountability, and more work must be done.
br>"This bill represents another important step," she said in the statement, "but we still have a long way to go."