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WASHINGTON -- When Congress gets back to work this month, it'll have plenty on its plate, but all eyes and hopes in higher education will be pinned on the reauthorization of the legislative behemoth known as the Higher Education Act.
Though the renewal of the act itself isn't in doubt, educators are still waiting to see what the massive bill will contain. Will it give poor students more tuition help? Less? Will colleges find themselves scrambling to justify their costs and their graduation rates to government auditors?
Decisions about these and other far-reaching policy questions will all be decided during the next few months, and even education advocates who don't always see eye-to-eye are for once in unanimous accord: If community colleges want to make their voices and their needs heard on Capitol Hill, the time is now.
Who's Doing What
The 1965 Higher Education Act is reauthorized every six years. During reauthorization, both houses of Congress hold hearings in Washington, inviting educators, advocacy groups and other policy analysts to examine the law and offer suggestions about what works, what doesn't and--perhaps most importantly--what programs need more money.
After the House and Senate draft legislation they can agree on, they send it to the president. Once the measure becomes law, the U.S. Department of Education is responsible for administering and enforcing it.
According to Alexa Marrero, press secretary for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is overseeing reauthorization, the House has held 10 hearings so far, and plans to finish its work on the bill by the end of year. The chairman of the committee, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and one of the subcommittee chairmen, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., are two of the key players.
The Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in the Senate will probably do most of its work on the legislation in 2004, Marrero said, after which the two houses will meet in a conference committee to draft the final measure they send to President Bush.
Marrero said it's important to remember that in terms of funding, the reauthorizing committees don't control how much money a program ultimately gels; that's up to the appropriations committees.
"Appropriators could go below suggested funding; it happens all the time. They are forced to appropriate whatever money is available," she said. "It's not a regular occurrence that an appropriation would be the same as an authorization level--it's often lower."
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