Higher Education Act expires without renewal

By Kate Shepherd

The Higher Education Act (HEA), the piece of federal legislation that dictates higher education policy, including government financial aid programs, has expired as of April 30. Congress is extending the Act until its renewal is completed and passed, with lawmakers expecting to pass the rewritten bill before the July 4 recess. The HEA, which became law in 1965, is reauthorized about once every seven years.

Congress is overhauling the Act as part of its efforts to introduce standard regulations that would affect college campuses nationwide to an unparalleled degree, said A. Scott Sudduth, the newly appointed director of the University’s Washington, D.C., Federal Relations office.

Music and video piracy, campus safety, credits for Advanced Placement exams, student loans, and financial aid are among the topics that fall within HEA’s broad scope. If passed, the cost of implementing these regulations could cause universities, including the University of Chicago, to raise their tuition costs in order to meet the updated standards of compliance, Sudduth said.

“Higher education is regulated in a variety of ways by Congress,” Sudduth said. “This reauthorization of the Higher Education Act has more than 120 new reporting requirements for higher education.

“The reauthorization covers everything from looking at institutional accreditation to how Advanced Placement exam scores should be looked at by schools like University of Chicago,” Sudduth said.

Additionally, the legislation includes clauses on campus safety, an issue that rose to prominence in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting last year. The updated Act would include provisions on campus crime and safety, missing students, campus emergencies, and student mental health, Sudduth said.

Another of HEA’s provisions would extend the length of federal Pell Grants for students from nine months to 12 months, which would allow students to use the grant money to pay for summer school. Due to increased enrollment, some universities, such as those in the University of California system, encourage students to enroll in summer classes. The grant extension would decrease the financial strain on students who attend school year-round, Sudduth said.

However, Sudduth said that the Act would not set regulations on admissions policies, adding that the new provisions would not infringe upon a school’s ability to determine enrollment.

“The legislation sets broad standards for higher education institutions but leaves universities to set their own admissions and enrollment policies,” he said.

The new version of the Act also forces universities to implement stricter rules on music and video piracy conducted over university Internet networks. The provision, which is being debated and has not yet been approved by the Senate, would require universities to purchase computer tools to detect illegal file sharing among students, faculty, and administration over university networks. The Act would also require schools to offer a discounted legal downloading program for students through a vendor such as iTunes, Sudduth said.

Sudduth added that many higher education institutions, including the University of Chicago, are willing to educate students on the dangers of violating copyright laws but do not feel that they should regulate it on their networks.

“A very small type of illegal file sharing happens across university networks. We do not like to look at the networks. Far more of this happens across private networks. The music industry should talk to the major providers as well,” he said.

Vice President and Chief Information Officer Greg Jackson said that the University would easily be able to offer students a deal with a legal music vendor but added that network regulation would prove problematic.

Not only does the technology not currently exist for that type of regulation, monitoring illegal file sharing has nothing to do with the University’s core purpose, Jackson said.

“If a student is illegally downloading episodes of an HBO show, that’s an issue between the student and HBO,” he said. “The university is not responsible for the student’s downloads. There are a lot of things students could do wrong that we are not responsible for.”

According to Jackson, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) have dramatically stepped up their campaign against copyright violations on university networks. Over the past two months, the University has seen complaints from the industries increase by five to 10 times despite a lack of evidence that illegal file sharing has increased at all during that time.

If the clause is approved and the regulation technology becomes available, regulating the University’s network would be costly enough that it could result in a tuition increase, Jackson said.

Sudduth said the provisions currently in the reauthorization bill would increase universities’ costs at a time when universities are trying to manage their budgets.

“I think there are some very good provisions in this bill that will help students, but implementing this legislation will come at a cost for higher education institutions,” he said.