Colleges and universities soon will be required to take measures to combat illegal file sharing on campus and ensure that students enrolled in online classes are the ones taking their tests, according to a bill passed by Congress July 31.

The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act also focuses on making college more accessible and affordable as it shapes higher education over the next five years.

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

The bill asks colleges and universities to implement network administration technologies that deter illegal peer-to-peer file sharing. These technologies can include bandwidth shaping, traffic monitoring that identifies the largest bandwidth users, or products designed to reduce or block illegal file sharing, according to the legislation. The bill allows each institution to determine its own policy and use the corresponding technology.

On July 31, the American Council on Education sent a letter to members of Congress stating that while the bill has a number of desirable provisions, it also has a number of drawbacks.

"Most notably, it will create an extraordinary number of new federal reporting and regulatory requirements dealing with … peer-to-peer file sharing. Although some of these have been made less onerous as the legislative process has proceeded, the total volume of new federal requirements remains considerable," ACE President Molly Corbett Broad wrote. "Complying with these requirements will be time-consuming and inevitably will increase administrative and personnel costs on campuses."

The bill also requires colleges and universities that offer online courses to protect the integrity of test taking and make sure that the students enrolled in the classes are, in fact, the ones taking the test.

Many online programs do little testing at all, because it’s difficult to verify whether students are cheating in an online setting. But new technologies are being developed to place cameras inside the students’ homes and lock down a computer while the test is being taken, preventing students from searching files or the internet. A product developed by Cambridge, Mass.-based Software Secure, for instance, has a small web camera and microphone that point into a reflective ball, which allows the camera to capture a full 360-degree image. (See "Web cameras eye online test-takers.")

The higher education bill also "takes major steps to expand college access and affordability," Sen. Edward 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.

The legislation will give prospective students more information about college tuitions and textbook costs, simplify application procedures, and make Pell Grants–the main federal aid program for low-income students–available year-round.

Passage comes a year after Congress, concerned about the soaring costs of going to college, took other steps, including cutting interest rates on student loans, raising the maximum dollar amount of Pell Grants, and redirecting billions of dollars from lender subsidies to programs targeting students more directly.

The new bill focuses more on transparency: It requires the Education Department to publish detailed data about college pricing trends on its web sites and requires the top 5 percent of colleges with the greatest cost increases over three years to explain those cost rises to the Education Department.

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

"To address soaring costs this legislation will address the transparency and the accountability of the tuition pricing system, shining a bright light on the prices set by colleges and universities," said House Education Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif.

Among other provisions, the bill:

– Strengthens restrictions on lenders, guaranty agencies, and colleges offering or accepting payments and gifts as a condition of making student loans.
– Allows military service members to defer payments, interest-free, on federal loans while they are on active duty. It also provides in-state tuition for service members and their dependents who have lived in a state for more than 30 days.
– Simplifies the federal aid application process and provides more protections and disclosure for students taking out private loans.
– Increases Pell Grants from $6,000 in 2009 to $8,000 for 2014, and allows low-income students to receive the grants year-round, not just for fall and spring semesters.
– Creates a new program to expand postsecondary opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities.
– Promotes teacher preparation programs for K-12 teachers and programs to place high-quality teachers in high-need schools.
– Takes steps to expand the nation’s supply of nurses by approving funds to expand nursing school faculties.

The bill is H.R. 4137.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Link:

Legislative information from the Library of Congress