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Higher Education Opportunity Act - Conference Report

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


HIGHER EDUCATION OPPORTUNITY ACT--CONFERENCE REPORT -- (Senate - July 31, 2008)

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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I will assure everyone I will not take 20 minutes.

First of all, let my thank all of those on the committee who worked on this bill.

The Higher Education Act of 1965, HEA, authorizes the Federal Government's major Federal student aid programs, as well as other programs which provide institutional aid and support. HEA also authorizes services and support to disadvantaged students, and to students pursuing international education and certain graduate and professional degrees. The last time the act was reauthorized was over a decade ago, in 1998.

The Senate passed HEA reauthorize on in July of 2007, with a vote of 95-0. The House of Representatives passed their version February 7, 2008, with a vote of 354-58. The final conference agreement is the product of nearly 6 months of work between the House and the Senate.

The Higher Education Act conference report, by the numbers, is nearly 1,200 pages, authorizes for appropriation of roughly $3.7 billion, creates 65 new programs, requires 24 new government studies, and requires the Department of Education to create and publish 26 different lists with information from more than 6,463 schools.

This bill seeks to address an enormous concern for many American families and students who are struggling to afford the cost of a college education. During the 2006-2007 academic year, more than $130 billion in financial aid was distributed to students in the form of grants, Federal loans, work-study, and tax credits and deductions. However, this financial aid is hardly keeping pace with the increasing rate of tuition.

According to the College Board, from 1996 to 2006, tuition rose 51 percent at 4-year public colleges and universities, after adjusting for inflation. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the average rate for undergraduate tuition and fees has nearly tripled over the past decade.

No one argues that the cost of college is rapidly rising, or that Congress, the States and institutions of higher education should examine this issue and work together to increase access and affordability for students. However, we must ask ourselves, is this bill the right solution? This bill dramatically increase general Federal financial aid to students through the following:

Increase the Pell Grant maximum from $5,800 to $8,000 at a cost of potentially $1.6 billion per year;

Permits students to receive Pell Grants year-round at a cost of $2.6 billion over 5 years;

Increases the loan fund for Perkins loans at a cost of $1 billion over 5 years;

Expands deferment for PLUS Loans and accrued interest would reduce direct spending $75 million over 5 years; and

Extend Federal loan forgiveness to the following groups--at a cost of $10.9 billion over 5 years: Public-sector employees (including Federal Government employees in Washington DC), nutrition professionals, mental health professionals, medical specialists, dentists, STEM employees, physical therapists, occupational therapists, superintendents, principals and other administrators, fire fighters, librarians, early childhood educators, nurses, foreign language specialists, speech language pathologists, school counselors, and others.

Dramatic increases in Federal student aid may sound like a helpful solution at first. However, research shows that increases in government funding only lead to further increases in tuition. According to a report by the Cato Institute, for every dollar increase in Pell Grants, private 4-year colleges increased tuition by more than two dollars.

The findings of the College Board in ``Trends in Student Aid 2007'' are even more astounding. The College Board reported that student aid increased by about 82 percent over the decade from 1997 to 2007, and Federal loans increased by 61 percent. Interestingly, this increase in aid covered about two-thirds of the increase in tuition at private 4-year colleges and almost all of the increase in tuition at public 4-year institutions.

These statistics demonstrate that both public and private universities are increasing tuition at the same pace--if not faster--than the Government increases funding. If we truly wish to make college education more affordable for students and families, we must focus on why tuition is increasing, despite increased subsidies from the Federal Government.

A July 31 editorial in the Washington Times discusses the correlation between increased government funding and rising tuition. The editorial states of the higher education conference agreement.

This bill would do nothing to rein in rampant tuition inflation, by far the biggest problem in higher education. Indeed, by giving students yet more taxpayer-furnished aid, it will just keep exacerbating the problem ..... Just look at the numbers: It's no coincidence that while the inflation-adjusted price of college has gone up roughly 70 percent over the last two decades, aid per-student rose almost 140 percent.

The best way to make improvements in higher education is to begin removing the Federal Government from the equation. When Congress and the U.S. Department of Education interject themselves into education matters, the result is generally less competition and individual control, more bureaucracy and an ultimately an inferior outcome.

The American Council on Education states that the higher education conference agreement ``would create a huge number of new reporting and regulatory requirements ..... Complying with these new unfunded mandates will take time and will increase the administrative costs facing colleges and universities.''

Rather than increasing the role of the Federal Government in subsidizing and regulating higher education, Congress should create incentives for families to save money and ease tax burden for students. Federal education tax credits and the Federal tuition tax deductions generated $5.9 billion in savings for taxpayers in 2006.

The Higher Education conference agreement does more than expand financial aid for students. The bill authorizes 65 new programs, many of which are duplicate, wasteful and unnecessary. By authorizing appropriations for these programs, Congress is allowing them to take funding away from student aid. Consider the following examples of misplaced priorities in the bill:

Henry Kuualoha Giugni Kupuna Memorial Archives: Provides a grant to the University of Hawaii Academy for Creative Media for the establishment and maintenance of memorial archives--such sums as necessary;

Campus-Based Digital Theft Prevention: Provides grants for schools to develop programs to prevent illegal downloading and distribution of music, movies and other intellectual property--such sums as necessary;

Pilot Program for Course Material Rental: Provides grants for college bookstores to operate textbook rental programs--such sums as necessary;

Off-Campus Community Service: Authorizes work study grants to institutions for recruiting and compensating students to supplement off campus community service employment--such sums as necessary;

University Sustainability Programs: Provides grants to establish sustainability programs and practices on campus. The term ``sustainability'' is not defined in the bill--such sums as necessary;

Modeling and Simulation Programs: Establishes a task force to study modeling and simulation and to support the development of the model and simulation field--such sums as necessary; and

Teach for America: Authorizes a 5-year grant to Teach for America, Inc. for $20 million in FY 2009, $25 million for FY 2010 and such sums for each of the four succeeding fiscal years.

It is important to note that if a Federal audit of Teach for America recently found that the organization did not properly account for $775,000 in Federal funds. The Department of Education Inspector General found that Teach for America was unable to provide documents to support roughly half its claimed spending. The New York Times reported that there was no documentation that any teachers actually attended and completed the class or that there even was a class. Rather than cleaning up the waste, Congress authorizes $45 million for the organization.

According to a July 11 CBS Evening News report titled, ``Teach for America Gets Schooled; Organization That Trains Teachers Gets a Failing Grade for Its Accounting Skills,'' after the audit, Teach for America tried handing over some newly-found documents, but it didn't help. The Inspector General said they contained ``significant discrepancies.''

Another important way to help contain the skyrocketing costs of education is to simply ensure taxpayers' dollars and students' tuition are directed towards educational purposes, and not lobbying or earmarks. We cannot continue to earmark millions of dollars to universities with billion dollar endowments, while students and families struggle to afford the cost of college.

The total cost of earmarks for colleges and universities exceeded $9 billion between 1995 and 2003. At the same time, average annual tuition at public 4-year institutions increased by 137 percent, from $2,357 to $5,836. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that Congress set aside a record $2.3 billion in pet projects for colleges and universities last year, $300 million more than in 2003, when the total was $2.01 billion.

Furthermore, in 2005 and 2006, colleges and universities spent more than $127 million on lobbying activities. This amount could have paid the full tuition for more than 21,760 students to attend public colleges and universities. Most students struggling to pay for housing and tuition may not be able to afford a tutor, much less a lobbyist. They should not, therefore, be forced to pay higher tuition so their school can hire Washington lobbyists.

Nobody who listened to Senator Alexander can come away saying we have not done what we need to do. And this is certainly a compromise piece of legislation.

But it is very worrisome to me that the only thing rising faster than the cost of health care in this country, other than gasoline in the last year and a half, is the cost of a college education. The only way we can compete globally is with an educated workforce. We have to ask ourselves the question, Why is it costing so much? Could it be the 10-foot tall--now with the passage of this bill--group of regulations that require billions of dollars to comply with every year that has taken away from the educational opportunities in this country?

I think another thing that was not addressed in the bill that should have been added in the bill is the fact that we have had over $9 billion worth of earmarks in the higher ed bill over the last 7 years. That is $9 billion that did not get prioritized. It was put in in the dark of night, inside a bill, inside an appropriations bill, that did not go out on the basis of merit, did not go out on the basis of a competitive grant.

And when the American people hear that $127 million was spent last year by colleges and universities to lobby this place, is it not any wonder that we are spending $9 billion on earmarks?

I also want to spend a moment talking about realtime writers. I held that bill; am still in opposition to it. I know it is in the bill. That is the way things work around here. I am going to lose that. But I want you to ask yourself the question: If there is greater demand for realtime writers and we are seeing the salaries rise and we are seeing the numbers start to come in, why in the world are we going to create a program to pay for it when the market is going to create the demand and the pay to get people to do it? We are going to blow that money because those people are going to go do that because the amount of money that is being paid for someone to do that is rising. So we are going to get in the middle of the economics of that. We are going to create a false level of it because we are going to train them. Now, do you know what is going to happen? Everyone who is a realtime writer now is going to make less money in the future.

So we are going to disown the economics of supply and demand, much like we are doing on energy, and we are going to put a grant program in, we are going to make sure these people are there, but everyone who is doing it now is going to make less money, and then we are going to have an overage. And so then what is going to happen is the people who went out and did it on their own and invested in it, they are going to go look for another job because we did not trust what has made this country great, which is the idea that if there is a demand, someone is going to fill the supply, and if they do not, the price is going to rise. So we have put that in this bill.

It will be a part of the bill. It is going to become law. But we are going to waste that money. It is shortsighted. It is wasteful. This bill creates 65 new Federal Government programs. Thirty-six reports are demanded from this bill, and it gets rid of six programs. Of the programs we create, nary a one has a metric on it so we can measure it 2 years from now to know whether what we did was right or wrong. In Oklahoma we call that peeing into the wind. It is going to come back on us.

As to the cost of a college education, we are seeing families squeezed by $2,400 a year in energy costs because we didn't act when we should have acted on energy, and we are not acting now. So they have less resources. Even with the wonderful increase in Pell grants and everything that we have done in this bill, the cost of a college education is going to rise about 9 percent a year. They can't keep up no matter what we do with Pell grants.

The better part of wisdom would be to ask the question: Is what we are doing really making a difference to increase the availability of a 4-year education or a 2-year education post high school?

The maintenance of effort in this bill will kill every community college in Oklahoma because they design programs for certain things and then walk away from them because there is not a demand for them anymore, whether it be for a new business, a new industry, or a new area where there is a shortage, and then they walk away. Now they have a maintenance of effort requirement. There is no exemption on that. You have killed one of the best things we have in Oklahoma, which is our community colleges. You are going to strangle them with this maintenance of effort. Now they will be very hesitant to create a new program that will make a big difference in the lives of Oklahomans, even though they will only run the program for 2 years because they will have to continue to fund it to be able to get anything else from us. It is shortsighted.

I will not go on. I know everybody who worked on this bill is well intentioned. Their heart is in the right place. They want us to have better educational opportunities. They want us to be able to afford it. They want greater excellence in terms of academia. I just don't think we did it. If we didn't do it, we are not going to be able to measure because we don't have any metrics.

The hope would be that maybe we could learn from this exercise. Maybe we ought to put in metrics. If we are going to create 65 programs, maybe we ought to think about getting rid of 65 instead of 6, and maybe we ought to measure the effect of what we are doing.

I yield the floor.

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