Higher Education Act Reauthorization

Bruce Craig, September 2004

Despite several hearings and considerable interest by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, it is nearly certain that the Higher Education Act will not be reauthorized this session of Congress.

Representative Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), leader of the Subcommittee on Higher Education of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, declared that the reauthorization debate has gotten "too partisan" and "too political" and that consequently, he would not bring HR 4283, legislation that seeks to extend the Higher Education Act, up for a vote. (HR 4283 is the most recent version of a Higher Education reauthorization bill that wraps other related measures together into one comprehensive bill.) This means that when the Higher Education Act expires later this fall, the Department of Education will join ranks with several other federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose programs have operated for some years without a formal congressional reauthorization.

Two of the most controversial aspects of the Higher Education Act are Titles VI and VII. College lobbyists assert that Title VI imposes intrusive new requirements for accrediting government-supported programs (see "The Battle Continues—Advisory Boards and the Title VI Higher Education Act" in Perspectives, April 2004). Critics claim that the language added to the reauthorization is an attempt by the federal government to "control" university curricula.

Title VII legislation also generated controversy, though less than Title VI. Proposed new language sought to increase the number of graduate students in fields of "national need"—science, math, legal studies, humanities, and the arts. One aspect of the bill was an authorization of $30 million a year for five years to improve post-secondary education by supporting "faculty and academic programs that teach traditional American history." The language neatly complimented the "Teaching American History" grants—a Department of Education program targeted to secondary school teachers. This title would encourage an increase in teaching "traditional" American history at the university level with a possible concomitant decrease in emphasis on teaching the history of non-Western cultures. Title VII legislation has passed the House as a stand alone measure (H.R. 3076) but it is not expected to be advanced to the Senate unless it is wrapped into the final House version of the Higher Education bill.

The controversy surrounding the Higher Education bill is such that the majority leadership has perhaps wisely decided not to wage this legislative battle in the few remaining days of the 108th session. To allow the legislation to reach the floor would give Democrats clear ammunition to use against the White House and Congressional Republicans during an election year.

— Bruce Craig