When it comes to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, get ready for a long wait.

At least that is my mid-May read after getting a chance to testify earlier this week before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Both what happened in the hearing itself, and in hallway conversation before and after, leads me to believe it is highly doubtful that a higher ed reauthorization bill can make it through both the House and Senate, and be signed by the President, in this election year.

That’s not good news for America’s families, but neither can I claim it is a disaster.

First of all, none of the many federal programs that families have come to rely on for assistance in funding college will go away. If Congress and the Administration are unable to agree on substantive changes to those provisions in the law, they will simply pass an extension.

This means:

  • the student loan program continues, but with an anachronistic decades-old limit on how much a freshman student can borrow ($2625), and overall limits on college borrowing that have not changed since 1992, while tuition has increased substantially;
  • the origination fee, in essence a 3 percent “tax” on student-loan borrowers, continues;
  • fixed-rate consolidation loans for borrowers in repayment also continue, potentially creating an enormous drain on the federal treasury and potentially tying up funds that would otherwise be available for current and future college students;
  • the single-holder rule for these consolidation loans remains in place, meaning that borrowers with multiple student loans from different companies may consolidate those loans with whomever they like, while borrowers with multiple loans from only one source must, if they choose to consolidate, utilize that single company;
  • the authorized level for federal Pell grants remains at $5800 per student per year, though the Appropriations Committees in both the House and Senate will have final say on exactly where the cap per student is set within that authorized level, most likely not too far from the current figure of $4050;
  • Pell Grants will continue to be available only during the traditional academic year, meaning that students who choose to go to summer school to either accelerate or catch up on their schedules will not be able to utilize this most widely dispersed source of financial aid funds; and
  • no change will be forthcoming in the area of transfer of credits, which proponents of change think is a quagmiren unnecessary bureaucratic roadblock contributing to students not graduating on time, while advocates of the status quo believe that the current system has important protections for schools and students.

As I take the above into consideration, it only strengthens my view that our actions in this political year when it comes to college issues may, in fact, be best directed at the state level, where important decisions are being made by state legislatures, governors and/or state governing bodies that affect students and their families.

In many states, politicians have been able to quietly re-direct funding away from higher education because they have seen a pattern of what an Economics 101 professor would call “price elasticity” with no end in sight. Tuition goes up and up at state schools, but students are applying in record numbers, so there is no pressure to keep prices down.

So while there may be a long wait for action to take place on the federal level, when it comes to relief for families on college costs, there is no reason at all to wait for action, or potential action, on the state level.

Make your voice heard in your own state, beginning with your state representative and state senator. Please contact us if we can help you find out who those individuals are and what their record of support has been for higher education funding.

Meanwhile, the winds can shift suddenly here in Washington, and I assure that we are staying on top of developments. Our inclusion in the Wednesday, May 12 hearing on The College Access and Opportunity Act of 2004 was an important watershed in our development as an organization, and I plan to put our newly acquired political capital to wise use as the long journey to reauthorization continues.