On Feb. 7, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved long-delayed legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Although the bill’s primary focus is on containing college costs, it also includes a controversial measure that would pressure colleges and universities to take steps to keep students from pirating music and movies using campus computer networks.

Dubbed “The College Opportunity and Affordability Act,” the education bill sailed through the House on a bipartisan vote of 354 to 58. It was slated for review at a conference with the Senate, which adopted a different version of the bill, 95 to 0, more than six months ago.

The House-passed bill, which would renew a broad range of federal higher-ed programs for five years, includes numerous provisions aimed at holding down expenses that people confront in attending college, and at limiting student debt. The bill would have the Education Department create a web site that consumers could use to compare charges among various institutions, and it would require colleges to report on what portions of their endowments they are using to contain costs.

Meanwhile, in a continuing controversy over efforts to curb so-called digital piracy of music and video files by college students, the bill would require academic institutions—“to the extent practicable”—to develop plans “for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property … [and] explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity.”

That language, supported by organizations representing the entertainment industry but opposed by college representatives as intrusive and overly burdensome, goes further than a Senate provision that essentially would call on institutions to caution students against “unauthorized peer-to-peer file sharing.”

The Senate adopted that approach in its bill after more stringent language introduced by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was withdrawn in the face of strong opposition from higher-education groups. (See Campus file-sharing battle erupts anew.)

Although the House’s version included wording designed to accomplish a similar informational purpose, its additional requirements for alternative plans and deterrents appeared to go beyond what many college leaders were comfortable with, particularly in light of legislative language that some people took to mean that noncompliance might jeopardize their students’ eligibility for federal financial aid. However, Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for the House Education and Labor Committee, said there was no definitive link to financial-aid eligibility, despite some confusion about the provision.

In opposing tough anti-piracy requirements on campuses, academic leaders have seized on a recent admission by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) that it had erred in claiming that 44 percent of the industry’s domestic revenue losses could be blamed on illegal downloading of movies by college students.

The losses caused by students actually were about 15 percent, the MPAA acknowledged, but even the lower figure has been challenged as unrealistically high by an official of Educause, the campus IT organization. (See MPAA admits mistake on downloading study.)

Mark Luker, Educause’s vice president, said in an online statement that the MPAA’s admission had come in a telephone call by Stewart McLaurin, its executive vice president. Pointing to the House reauthorization bill, Luker said lawmakers thus were pressing colleges and universities to “develop a plan to spend millions of dollars on technologies” aimed at deterring illegal downloading by relatively few students.

Luker said McLaurin had “verified” that the MPAA’s revised figures included all college students, rather than the 18.7 percent of them who lived on a campus. In targeting colleges, Luker asserted, the House bill actually takes aim at only about 3 percent of industry losses.

Educause also objects to the bill’s file-sharing provisions because they would force colleges to “take technological steps to block allegedly infringing material … when there is no consensus on what technology can adequately and accurately accomplish that goal,” according to an earlier statement.

In its overall attention to the high cost of higher education, the House bill is seeking—through a variety of new rules and reporting requirements—to raise the ante for colleges that make big increases in their tuition and other charges. (According to the Associated Press, public four-year colleges and universities are charging in-state students an average of $6,200 this year, while public two-year colleges cost about $2,360. At private four-year institutions, the average price is about $23,700.)

As summarized by the House committee, the bill—consisting of more than 800 pages—is intended to “reform our higher education system so that it operates in the best interests of students and families, while boosting our competitiveness and strengthening our future.”

The committee also commented: “A college education continues to be the best path to the middle class. But more and more, high college prices and other obstacles are putting a college degree further out of reach for America’s students. In addition to rising tuition, students and their families face an overly complex federal student aid application process and a student loan industry mired in conflicts of interest and corrupt lending practices.”

Chaired by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the panel highlighted more than two dozen goals for the legislation. It said the bill would encourage colleges to rein in price increases and provide consumers with helpful information; restore integrity and accountability to student-loan programs; simplify the federal student aid application process; make textbook costs more manageable; expand college access and support for low-income and minority students; increase college aid and support for veterans and military families; ensure equal college opportunities for students with disabilities; boost campus safety and disaster readiness plans; encourage colleges to adopt sustainable and energy-efficient practices; and “strengthen our workforce and our competitiveness.”

Links:

House Committee on Education and Labor

House Report 110-500

House-passed reauthorization bill (H.R. 4137)

Senate-passed reauthorization bill (S. 1642)

Educause material on file-sharing

Motion Picture Association of America