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EDUCATION: SMART RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS AND PARENTS

Higher Education Bill Targets Costs, Crime

October 26, 1998|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Lowering interest rates on students loans captured most of the attention earlier this month when President Clinton signed a bill that revisited federal higher education programs for the first time since 1992.

But Congress tucked a few other things into the bill's 668 pages.

Take campus crime, for example. Congress stripped colleges of some of the artful dodges used to keep criminal activity--and the results of campus disciplinary proceedings--from public view.

Or consider teacher training. Colleges and universities will now have to reveal how many of their education school graduates pass teacher licensing and certification exams.

And then there's the spiraling cost of higher education.

The new law instructs the National Center for Education Statistics to study all of the factors driving up costs: tuition, fees, faculty salaries, administrative salaries, research operations, technology and maintenance.

A few years from now, the U.S. secretary of education will begin to release an annual report that details the tuition and fees at all colleges in "an easily understandable form" so that students and parents can do comparison shopping.

"It's not done to try to embarrass the schools," said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), who sponsored the bill. "But the fact that we are putting the spotlight on it may help keep costs down."

Making colleges more affordable was a major focus of the legislation officially called the Higher Education Amendments of 1998.

After all, the point of the bill was to update the Higher Education Act of 1965, which governs $38 billion in federal student aid. That accounts for about 68% of all nonparental financial assistance to college students.

So the bill rejiggered the interest rate formula on student loans, based on treasury bill rates and added points. If T-bill rates remain low, an average student could save about $700 in interest over a decade, repaying $13,000 in debt at 7.46% interest.

"When grown-ups look at the numbers, it doesn't seem to make much difference," said Sandy Baum, an economist at Skidmore College. "But smaller payments for recent graduates can be quite significant on a starting salary."

If rates surge, the new formula caps interest rates at 8.25%--roughly the same rate that existed before the law changed.

The new law also authorizes an increase in the maximum per-student Pell Grant to $4,500 next year and then raises the ceiling in annual $300 increments until 2003.

"It's a step in the right direction," said USC economist Morton Owen Schapiro, who notes that Pell Grants have not kept pace with escalating tuition.

But there is a hitch. Pell Grants can only reach these levels if Congress provides the money in its annual budget. This year, for instance, the budget restricted Pell Grants to $3,000, even though they were authorized to go much higher.

Crime on Campus: Weighing in on a touchy issue, Congress agreed to some requests by victims rights groups to nudge colleges into more complete disclosure of campus crime.

"Most campuses are very safe," McKeon said. "That doesn't mean that if something happens on campus, it shouldn't be reported."

So colleges will now be required to maintain a public police log of most major crimes--except when such reporting could jeopardize an ongoing investigation or the confidentiality of a victim of sexual assault.

Colleges also must add two new crimes--arson and manslaughter--to the list of offenses reported annually to the federal government. The others are murder, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft.

The two most prevalent crimes on campus--petty theft and auto burglary--remain off the list.

In addition, colleges have newly expanded responsibilities for reporting crime that occurs on sidewalks, streets and parking lots contiguous to the campus and at off-campus locations related to the school: fraternities, college-run buildings and the like.

This expanded turf will result in some "real confusion" at some urban campuses, said Pete Sysak, president of the California College and University Policy Chiefs Assn. Some big-city campuses will have the burden of coordinating statistics with as many as half a dozen surrounding police agencies to make sure they comply with the law.

Victims rights and journalist organizations tried, but failed, to persuade Congress to force colleges to open up their secret campus courts.

Instead, Congress took one step in that direction. It repealed a federal privacy law that prohibited colleges from disclosing the "final results" of these secret proceedings.

Although college officials lobbied heavily against these changes, Congress was moved by the powerful testimony of parents who complained about being victimized twice: once when their child was raped or murdered, then a second time when their quest for justice was stymied by college administrations and secret disciplinary proceedings.

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