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Higher-education overhaul OKd

Bush is expected to sign a measure to help low-income, minority, military and disabled students go to college.

August 01, 2008|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Congress on Thursday sent to President Bush the first overhaul of the federal higher-education act in a decade, giving strong bipartisan backing to a bill aimed at making college more accessible and affordable for hundreds of thousands of low-income, minority, military and disabled students.

The legislation would give prospective students more information about college tuition and textbook costs; simplify applications; and make Pell grants, the main federal aid program for low-income students, available year-round.

The Senate voted 83 to 8 to approve the measure, hours after the House passed it by a vote of 380 to 49. The White House has complained that the legislation creates new costly and duplicative programs, but Bush is expected to sign it.

The bill "takes major steps to expand college access and affordability," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a statement, noting that every year an estimated 780,000 qualified students don't attend four-year colleges because they can't afford it.

Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, had led negotiations to rewrite a federal higher-education act that passed in 1998 and expired five years ago. He had to cede that role when he took leave two months ago to be treated for a brain tumor.

The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, said the bill it takes "historic steps to provide students with the tools, the means and the power to get a higher education."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who filled in after Kennedy became ill, acknowledged the difficulty in coming to conclusion on the 1,100-page bill. "I feel like we've been on third base for 6 1/2 years," she said.

Passage comes a year after Congress took other steps against the soaring costs of college, including cutting interest rates on student loans and raising Pell grants.

This bill focuses more on transparency: It requires the Education Department to publish detailed data about college pricing trends on its websites and requires the top 5% of colleges with the greatest cost increases over three years to explain those increases to the Education Department.

Textbook publishers must share pricing information with professors and "unbundle" materials so students can buy only those they need for their classes. The practice of bundling textbooks with supplementary materials such as CDs is one reason textbooks cost students about $900 a year, according to a 2005 government study.

Other provisions include allowing military service members to defer payments, interest-free, on federal loans while they are on active duty, and increasing Pell grants from $6,000 in 2009 to $8,000 in 2014.

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