College tuition is about to get a bit easier to swallow. With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Edward Kennedy leading the way, Congress signed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 on Tuesday afternoon (September 18), sending a bill to President Bush that backers say is the biggest increase in higher-education funding since the GI Bill paved the way for millions of World War II veterans to go to college in 1944.
Representative George Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor and one of the leading forces behind the bill, said Democrats promised to cut college costs while campaigning last fall before taking over leadership of both houses of Congress, and the passing this bill was a big part of keeping that pledge.
"This is a very real benefit and value to a huge cross section of students in our colleges and universities," Miller said just hours before the signing ceremony. "For low-income students, we now know that several hundred thousand students a year make a decision to postpone college or not go to college because they don't know economically how they're going to handle it." Many of the changes included in the bill, he said, will make the hard decision to forgo college for economic reasons easier to avoid.
The bill, passed in both the House and Senate earlier this month and survived a threatened veto from President Bush, is expected to boost college aid by $20 billion over the next four years. Among the changes it will usher in: the cutting in half of interest rates on federal loans and federally subsidized loans over the next four years, which could save the average student thousands of dollars, as well as making more students eligible for loans.
The cap on low-income Pell Grants will be raised from $4,050 to $5,200 (and $5,400 by 2012), with more than 600,000 students gaining eligibility for the grants that don't have to be paid back. An extra $4,000 a year on top of loans and federal grants will go to undergraduates and graduate students who plan to teach in public schools in high-poverty communities or high-need subject areas. Students going into some public-sector jobs, such as firefighting, early-childhood education, nursing or public defense will qualify for complete loan forgiveness after 10 years on the job paying off student-loan debt. The bill is also making investments to help recruit and retain students in institutions that serve minority populations, such as historically black colleges and universities and schools that serve the Hispanic, American Indian, native Hawaiian and Asian-American students.
After the addition of some "very small" changes requested by Bush in order to avoid the veto, Miller said the president would be signing on because he realizes "this bill is incredibly important to a huge cross section of middle America, low-income America and our future students. The cost of college has gone up almost 40 percent over the cost of inflation over the last five years. More and more families are finding it difficult, and I don't think the president wanted to stand between middle America and low-income American and legislation that would really help them finance college."
While some private lenders are less than enthused about the move, which they say will result in less choice for some students, Miller said the bill will not cost taxpayers anything and pays for itself by reducing what Democrats labeled "excessive" federal subsidies to the college-loan industry. Some of the provisions could kick in as early as October. Additionally, it fulfills one of the six legislative priorities Democrats announced in the fall before winning back Congress.
Pelosi will visit Howard University on Wednesday with a number of her more junior congressional colleagues to give a report card on the status of congressional action on a number of issues that are important to many younger voters, such as the Iraq war, terrorism, the minimum wage, job-training programs and global warming.
Next on the education-reform agenda, according to Miller, are "serious discussions" with schools about what they can do to hold down the cost of attending college. "It doesn't make sense for us to keep giving more money if they aren't holding down costs," Miller said.