Higher Ed act reviewed by Congress

Proposed amendments to the Higher Education Act could touch AU students' lives when it comes to financial aid.

In fall 2002, AU had 5,870 undergraduate students. Approximately 2,348 of them received some form of financial aid according to Amy Gerber, associate director of Financial Aid.

The Act, first passed by Congress in 1965, was meant to improve resources available to America's colleges and give financial assistance to students. Congress reauthorizes it periodically, with amendments added each time.

The Act's last reauthorization was in 1998, and it is up for reauthorization again this year. Amendments proposed by members of Congress are currently undergoing debate in their respective committees, awaiting the next steps to be added to the Higher Education Act.

In all there are about 50 of these amendments in Congress, although this figure counts bills that are jointly introduced in both houses twice.

Among the areas covered in proposed amendments:

ACCESS TO FINANCIAL AID

- Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., would like to repeal a 1998 amendment that denies federal student aid from applicants who had been convicted of selling or possessing illegal drugs.

This amendment, added in 1998 with the help of Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., is the reason why the Free Application for Federal Student Aid requires applicants to say whether they have ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs.

Frank's bill, which has 62 cosponsors, would eliminate that question from the FAFSA. "We're certainly not advocating this for major drug traffickers, [but] it's mostly simple possession that kids get busted for," Frank spokesman Joe Racalto previously told The Eagle.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., thinks Frank's proposal goes too far, Meeks Legislative Assistant Jennifer Stewart, an AU graduate student, said.

Meeks has proposed a bill that would cut off federal financial aid from applicants who have been convicted of drug-related offenses while in college. Other applicants would be eligible for student aid.

The bill has no cosponsors, but Stewart said that it has bipartisan support and is likely to be passed.

- A bill proposed by Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., would cut off federal student aid from those who have taken part in hazing activities, such as withholding sleep from students or putting others in physical danger. The aid restriction would apply to students who have been punished in any way for hazing-from the university level to criminal court.

Under this bill, individual colleges would have to report these students to the federal government. This bill has seven cosponsors.

PELL GRANTS

- Students could be awarded larger Pell Grants under a bill proposed by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. These grants are awarded to undergraduate students, based on financial need.

Dodd's amendment, if passed, would set the maximum Pell Grant award at $6,700 for the 2004-05 academic year, $7,600 for 2005-2006 and $8,600 for 2006-2007.

The maximum amount that a student could receive in a Pell Grant for the 2002-03 school year was $4,000. The bill has eight cosponsors.

"This would affect the neediest families," Gerber said in an e-mail. "For the population of students who are not Pell eligible, this new measure may make more institutional funds available to them."

Gerber reported that 659 AU students received Pell Grants during the 2002-03 school year.

WORK STUDY

- Students who qualify for Federal Work-Study would be able to earn these funds by working at off-campus internships that tie into their majors, under a proposal by Rep. David Wu, D-Ore.

The way work-study operates now: federal money goes to students in exchange for work in on-campus positions, such as offices and cafeterias. Under Wu's bill, the money would be funneled to students who work off-campus.

Wu spokesman Cameron Johnson said, "It would be exactly the way work-study works now, instead of working in the library, you'd be working in a private company."

The bill has no cosponsors.

STUDENT LOANS

- A joint proposal by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, would allow student loan borrowers to "shop around" for the best interest rates if they choose to consolidate loans, even if those loans are from the same lender.

For example, if a student took out a Stafford Loan from the federal government during his or her freshman year, and another Stafford Loan as a sophomore, he or she could consolidate them after graduation.

According to Dominic Maione, a staffer in Regula's office, currently student borrowers can only consolidate their loans if they come from more than one lender.

The bill has one cosponsor in the Senate and 16 in the House.

- Another amendment being proposed in both houses of Congress would provide loan forgiveness to college graduates who teach in the Head Start program.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., are jointly proposing the amendment in their respective houses of Congress. It has 17 cosponsors in the Senate and 59 in the House.

The federal government already provides forgiveness of certain loans to college graduates who teach in elementary and secondary schools, according to DeLauro Press Secretary Leslie Sillaman. The amendment would extend this forgiveness to those who teach in Head Start programs.

Head Start is a federally funded initiative that provides pre-kindergarten child development to disadvantaged children.

Teachers would have loans forgiven up to $5,000 and would have to commit to Head Start for five years.

"It's important to put as many qualified teachers in that program," Sillaman said. "Head Start teachers only earn about $21,000, so it would certainly help financially."

- A bill proposed by Sen. Michael DeWine, R-Ohio, would provide similar loan forgiveness to those who work for low-income clients in such fields as family and juvenile law for non-profit agencies or the government. Borrowers would need to work in these fields for at least three consecutive years to be eligible for this loan forgiveness.

In the third year, the Department of Education would repay 20 percent of certain loans, with this percentage increasing each year. After five years, the government would repay 50 percent of certain loans.

STUDENTS IN THE MILITARY

- Although some schools do not guarantee that students who leave to serve in the military will be able to return, one proposed bill would require schools to hold spots that servicemen leave behind. The school would also have to preserve those students' financial aid packages.

The bill is being proposed by Rep. Martin Frost, D-Tex., in the House and Landrieu in the Senate. It has 30 cosponsors in the House and four in the Senate.

"A lot of schools have very progressive policies, but not everybody does," Frost Press Secretary Jess Fassler said.

- A bill proposed by Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, would mean that servicemen would have some of the interest on their student loans paid by the government while they are on active duty.

Currently, members of the military have their federal loan payments deferred while they are serving. The bill would also subsidize the interest on these loans while servicemen are on duty, Press Secretary Pat Lowry said.

"You shouldn't make it economically more difficult when they return," Lowry said.

The amendment would apply to borrowers who are current students, as well as former students who join the military. Ryan's bill has 63 cosponsors.

REAUTHORIZATION

The current Higher Education Act expires Sept. 30 of this year, but that does not necessarily mean that Congress will pass the legislation by then.

"There are legislative devices that Congress can use to extend legislation beyond its expiration date," Wu spokesman Johnson said. "The expectation is that they'll do that."

Johnson estimated that the reauthorization process would be finished by the beginning of 2004.

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