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House Committee Approves Increase in Pell Grant, New Funding For Black Colleges

The House education committee on Wednesday approved a higher education bill that would increase Pell Grants, cut lender subsidies and make wide-ranging changes to help low-income students and minority-serving colleges.

The College Cost Reduction Act would reduce lender subsidies and channel much of the money toward need-based financial aid. The maximum Pell Grant would increase to $5,200 within five years, and colleges could receive more Pell funds if they keep their tuition increases in line with an annual college price index.

Sponsors said the bill also would support federal programs for historically Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions and create a new funding stream for predominantly Black colleges, or higher education institutions that are not HBCUs but have sizable enrollment of African American students.

“This is the single largest federal investment in education since the GI Bill,” said Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Tex., a senior Democrat on the Education and Labor Committee and co-sponsor of the measure.

With a strong bloc of Democratic support, the bill won approval by a 30-16 vote. Most Republicans voted against the measure, citing its cost, burden and other factors. The committee also rejected several amendments to change provisions of the bill.

For HBCUs, HSIs and other minority-serving institutions, the measure would double the current federal investment, Hinojosa said. “These institutions of higher learning are only going to grow in importance” to train tomorrow’s workforce, he added.

“We know that poor minority students struggle when they enter college and they have a difficult time staying there,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chair of the Education and Labor Committee.

The bill presents a rare opportunity to use “wasteful lender subsidies” to improve financial aid for needy students, he added.

The legislation also creates incentives for colleges to keep down costs. Under one provision, the government would compute a college price index based on average increases in post-secondary costs. Any institution that keeps tuition increases within this index would become eligible for new institutional grants as well as higher Pell Grant allotments to use on needy students.

One provision would cut student loan interest rates in half, while another would provide student loan forgiveness for graduates choosing careers in public service.

But many Republicans criticized the bill for doing little to assure that colleges will begin to control expenses. Even though the bill’s title focuses college cost reduction, McKeon said, “We’re not doing anything to address the cost of college.”

Miller, however, said the bill emphasizes access as well as help for low-income students to succeed in higher education. “There’s nothing crueler than having a student drop out of college and end up with a lot of debt,” he said. “With this bill, we are saying that no one should be denied the opportunity to go to a college simply because of the price.”

The measure now goes to the full House.

–Charles Dervarics

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