House Bill Slows Down; Hearings Continue

Publication Number 14 July 14, 2004

Key House Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon indicated last week that his Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness would not mark up his main Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization bill this year. Citing partisan differences on HR 4283, his Republican proposal to extend HEA, McKeon said that he will continue to hold hearings but not bring the bill to a vote this year. Full Committee Chair John Boehner also issued a statement that they will continue to work on their bill.

The implications of these statements clarify that the big issues in HEA will be decided by the Congress in 2005, after the fall elections. But the technical work of considering modifications and drafting alternate amendments will continue until the Congress adjourns in the fall. Thus, the utility of working with the Congress in 2004 remains high, as Boehner, McKeon and others position their HEA legislation for consideration early in the new year.

Two Hearings: Private Career Schools and Accreditation

Prior to the McKeon remarks on timing, two hearings were held in mid-June on HR 4283. On June 16, 2004, the full House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on the HEA and students at private career schools, which the hearing called “proprietary” schools. On June 22, the McKeon subcommittee held a hearing on accreditation issues in HR 4283. Both hearings heard mainly from witnesses selected by the majority party based on their support for the provisions of HR 4283.

The private career schools hearing opened with a statement by Chairman Boehner on his view that students attending these schools are treated unfairly under current law and that his HR 4283 provisions are aimed at changing this situation. The main accreditation-related issue was transfer of academic credit. The McKeon hearing addresses a wide range of accreditation issues, including quality assurance, measuring student achievement, distance education and providing information to the public. Each hearing is summarized below.

Private Career Schools and HR 4283

The Republican bill includes three major changes in current law that would enable greater participation in federal programs for private career schools and their students: a single definition of “institutions of higher education,” repeal of the “50% rule” that limits participation of schools with greater than half their student using distance education, and repeal of the “90/10 rule” that demands that a school can receive no more than 90% of its funds from federal programs. These changes are opposed by most of the traditional, non-profit sector of higher education. Not surprisingly, at the June 16 session the three witnesses from the private career sector supported them and the witness representing the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) opposed them. The same lineup prevailed on the accreditation-related issues and transfer of academic credit, where Barmak Nassirian, Associate Executive Director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), explained the opposition to the bill by campus registrars and like-minded campus officials. Questions from the committee members demonstrated that Republicans and some Democrats supported the basic approach to legislate new federal transfer of credit rules. However, the statements of the members appear to leave open the opportunity for some modifications in the bill language on credit transfer to accommodate in part the problems raised by the opponents.

Accreditation and HR 4283

A well-attended and far-ranging hearing on June 22 reviewed the accreditation provisions of HR 4283 and their impact on quality and accountability. Four witnesses generally supported the bill while Shenandoah University President James Davis, representing the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), noted difficulties. Seventeen members of the Subcommittee attended the hearing and most stayed on to question the witnesses. The range of views from both the witnesses and the members were broader that the prior week. For a Congressional hearing, the discussion explored the issues in more depth than usual. Chair McKeon indicated at the outset that he continues to support the basic role of accreditation as the means to assure quality in higher education, but he wants provisions in the legislation that strengthen accountability and provide more transparency to empower consumers.

All the witnesses indicated that strengthening the emphasis on student achievement was valuable, but they differed on how much work was already underway and the need for more federal intervention. Similarly, all agreed that some students and parents could use more information on academic quality in a consumer-friendly way, but witnesses differed on who might provide various types of information and whether the added requirements of HR 4283 contributed to the solution. Some committee members expressed concerns that expanded distance education programs would be sufficiently monitored, and heard mixed reactions from the witnesses about whether current efforts were adequate. In sum, the hearing touched on many of the key accreditation issues in HR 4283, demonstrated a high interest from members and signaled the possibility of further negotiations as the bill moves forward.

Next Steps

The McKeon comments on timing were made in an informal conversation with a reporter after the conclusion of the June 22 hearing. He said that more hearings on HR 4283 would be held this summer to keep momentum for the bill. CHEA and others will continue to work with the Committee members and their staffs on the provisions on HR 4283. We encourage you to do the same. The Republican leadership has several available strategies for progress on their HEA reauthorization, but they are most likely to introduce a modified version of their bill when the new session of Congress begins in 2005. Working with the Congress to improve the current bill with an eye toward including our proposed changes in future revisions would be the best way to advance our interests in accreditation issues.