Higher Education Bill passes through Congress with little fanfare

By The Columbia Chronicle

Marnie Schipper

Staff Writer

Lately it seems that Congress is more concerned with President Clinton’s personal matters than with its constituents’ well being, so it came as a pleasant surprise when a higher education bill sailed through the House and Senate last month with no resistance from President Clinton. This is good news for the nearly 9 million students who receive close to $49 billion in financial assistance.

On Oct. 7, the 105th Congress and President Clinton passed a bill with provisions designed to save the student loan program and to lower the interest rate on student loans to its lowest point in 17 years.

The Higher Education Act Amendments of 1998, otherwise known as H.R. 6, has been hailed as one of the most important pieces of legislation this year. Earlier in the year, Congress was concerned that an interest rate change would lead to a major disruption in the student loan program.

H.R. 6 was designed to correct the interest rate calculations and ensure that not only would student loans remain available to all who need them but the interest rate would be the lowest in the history of the program. Interest rates will drop from 8.23 percent to 7.43 percent, saving student borrowers hundreds of dollars when the time comes to repay their loans.

Some of the other highlights of H.R. 6 include an expansion of the Pell Grant program, raising the maximum Pell Grant to $4,500 a year in 1999-2000 from the present $3,000, and improving other campus-based aid programs like the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Work Study and Perkins Loans.

H.R. 6 strengthens the Federal need analysis formula to encourage students to work and save for their college education by increasing the income protection allowance for dependent and independent students. The bill exempts veterans’ benefits from being counted against students who apply for financial aid.

Not only does the bill help students fund their education, it also plans to hold colleges accountable for tuition increases. The United States General Accounting Office is now required to track the progress made by colleges and universities by issuing a yearly report on college cost and tuition increases. A clear standard for reporting college costs and prices will be developed and the results will be made available to the public on a yearly basis.

Applying for aid becomes more “user-friendly” as well, requiring only one financial aid application for the FFEL Stafford and Direct Student loan programs.

Congress also hopes to improve academic quality by promoting safer campuses. Students will now have more timely access to crime statistics and information that will allow them to have an accurate picture of campus safety. Improvements will also be made to distance learning and teacher education.