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Congressional Higher Ed Committee Tackles College Access, Affordability


More support for Pell Grants and minority-serving colleges are two of the best strategies to expand access to postsecondary education, witnesses told the U.S. House of Representatives’ higher education subcommittee yesterday at the panel’s first hearing of the 110th Congress.

Historically Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges “represent some of the nation’s most important but underserved postsecondary education resources,” said Jamie Merisotis, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Higher Education Policy.

These colleges serve 2.3 million students, or about one-third of all minority students in higher education, Merisotis said. Enrollment also is rising steadily at these institutions, which attract a much larger share of Pell-eligible students than other colleges and universities.

In testimony to the Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness, Merisotis called for expanding Titles III and V of the Higher Education Act, which helps support MSIs. “No group of institutions does more to promote the dual goals of investing in students who might not otherwise go to college and ensuring accountability to those students than minority-serving institutions,” he said.

To help low-income students nationwide, Congress also should increase the maximum Pell Grant to at least $6,000, he said. Such an increase — from the current top grant of $4,310 — would cover nearly half the cost of attendance at a typical public four-year college or university.

Financial aid and access issues also are priorities for the subcommittee’s new chairman, U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Tex. In convening the hearing, Hinojosa expressed concern that the nation is “shortchanging” the next generation of college students.

“Hispanic and African-American students will account for most of the growth in our traditional college-age population,” he said. Yet some of these students do not graduate high school on time and only 20 percent are ready for college. “We need to expand access and success in higher education on a larger scale than ever before,” he said.

But the nation faces an uphill battle due in part to a “massive shift” in financial aid policy away from need-based aid for low-income students, said Ross Wiener, vice president for program and policy at the Education Trust in Washington, D.C. He said the growth of merit-based aid and tuition tax credits tends to benefit middle-income families, leaving needy students with a smaller share of the financial aid pot.

“Institutions of higher education have abandoned low-income access,” Wiener said. Among possible solutions, he recommended that colleges and universities make a specific commitment to educating low-income students to maintain their tax-exempt status.

Yet Republicans on the panel questioned whether more financial aid encourages colleges to raise tuition. Despite more Pell funding since 2000, tuition and fees at four-year public colleges have increased 35 percent in the past five years, said U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla. Keller said he favored new legislation to give families more information about college pricing and their financial aid options.

–Charles Dervarics


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