If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn't thinking.
– George Patton
Volume 76 | Issue 3
May 2008

Public policy update

Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 still awaits further congressional action before final passage. No formal conference has been held on the House and Senate versions (S. 1642/ H.R. 4137). One concern identified in the pending legislation deals with immediate emergency response and evacuation procedures. The Senate bill includes campus notification requirements in a "timely and responsive manner" should an emergency or dangerous situation occur on campus, whereas the House version mandates notification within 30 minutes and includes off-campus and public property. Until these differences are resolved, another stopgap measure extended Higher Education Act programs through April 30, 2008 (P.L. 110-198).

Federal budget

With respect to the fiscal year 2009 federal budget and appropriations process, the House and Senate have passed differing budget resolutions. Both versions are significantly higher than the president’s requested allocations. However, election year politics are anticipated to compound the general friction between the White House and Congress on funding issues, and it is likely that only a few national security and military measures will be signed into law this year with the rest held over until the start of the new Congress and presidential administration next year.

Student loans

Congress moved quickly in April to address growing concerns about the availability of student loans amid the ongoing credit crunch in financial markets. Sen. Ted Kennedy introduced S. 2815, The Strengthening Student Aid for All Act in early April while the House passed a companion bill, H.R. 5715, The Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008. Both bills seek to expand unsubsidized federal student loan amounts and give the Secretary of Education additional authority to safeguard and supplement access to student loans. While Congress admits that, "No student or college has reported any problems accessing federal student aid to date," they expect these measures would serve as a contingency plan.


Within the executive branch, the Department of Education published a notice of proposed rulemaking in late March that outlines regulatory changes to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). The proposed changes are needed to comply with the Patriot Act and Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act as well as two Supreme Court opinions. In addition, a number of administrators have sought clarification on privacy issues in the year since the Virginia Tech shootings. The rules clarify the ability to release confidential information in instances where the institution makes a rational determination that a significant threat to the health or safety of a student or others exists. It also expands protections to students enrolled via distance education.

Graduate assistant employment status

Rep. George Miller and Sen. Kennedy also introduced The Teaching and Research Assistant Collective Bargaining Rights Act (H.R. 5838/S.2891) seeking to apply the protections of the National Labor Relations Act to graduate students. In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) held that Brown University graduate assistants are not employees and therefore do not have the right to join a union. The jurisdiction of the NLRB only covers private institutions as public institutions fall under state law, which varies. Since the University of Wisconsin–Madison students organized the first union of graduate assistants in 1969, there have been many state efforts to organize, and more than a dozen states do afford collective bargaining protections to graduate assistants at public institutions. Earlier this year, teaching assistants and adjunct professors at Maryland’s public universities unsuccessfully attempted to pass state-level legislation that would enable unionization. The proposed legislation in Congress, however, would still only cover private sector workers.

ACUI is currently accepting applications for public policy team leader. More information is available at http://www.acui.org/volunteer. If you have any suggestions or questions regarding ACUI’s public policy and civic engagement efforts, please contact acui@acui.org.