Ambitious higher education legislation is loaded with student aid, community college improvements.
Billed as the most ambitious higher education legislation in years, a measure recently approved by a congressional committee has a number of provisions that may help students and community colleges for years to come.
Passed with much fanfare by a House panel this summer, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) would raise the maximum Pell Grant and then peg it to a level slightly above inflation, with the top grant increasing from $5,550 to $6,900 in 10 years at a cost of $47 billion. The bill’s proposed $2 billion in new funds for minority-serving institutions also has generated interest among historically Black colleges and other institutions.
Perhaps the most controversial provision in the bill would replace the bank-led Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program with direct government loans — a move that would save $87 billion over 10 years, its advocates say.
But tucked into the bill are many other provisions likely to change the federal role in everything from campus-based student aid to financial aid applications. One signifi cant winner would be community colleges, which would stand to gain more than $9 billion under goals to improve infrastructure and college completion rates.
“This is going to be one of the most monumental pieces of legislation for higher education in some time,” said Gregory Cendana, president of the United States Student Association. “It speaks to the need to prioritize investment in higher education.”
Community colleges stand to gain signifi cantly if the bill becomes law. Among other provisions, the bill would provide:
• $600 million a year in competitive grants to community colleges for “reform” efforts including student support services, work force development programs, transfer agreement and other efforts to increase degree completion rates.
• $600 million a year for state grants that support “systemic reform” of community and junior college systems, with goals to better serve high-need populations and improve graduation rates.
• $50 million a year for community colleges and partners to develop more high-quality online courses.
In addition, community colleges would receive $2.5 billion for facility modernization, repair and improvement. Among other uses, funds could be used to match private donations to community college capital campaigns.
Two-year colleges also would get a share of a proposed new $3 billion college access and completion initiative. Students also could be big winners. In addition to the Pell Grant increase, the legislation would dramatically expand federal funding for Perkins Loans, a campus- based program designed to supplement other aid to needy students.
“Perkins is an important loan program because it’s one that has lower interest rates,” Cendana said.
Funding for the program would grow from $1 billion to $6 billion. Another provision would simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Where possible, the new form would remove questions whose answers could be obtained through Internal Revenue Service databases.
“Many first generation college students and their parents may not understand the whole fi nancial aid process,” Cendana said. “Any steps to make it easier are always helpful.” Other provisions of SAFRA would:
• Invest $2.55 billion in minority-serving institutions, including historically Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges.
• Maintain low interest rates on subsidized student loans beyond 2012, when guarantees are set to expire.Make the conversion to federal Direct Loans by July 1, 2010.
While SAFRA cleared the House Education and Labor Committee, the bill faces some obstacles ahead. Most Republicans oppose the measure, calling it too expensive.
“The speed with which Democrats are orchestrating a full government takeover of our classrooms and communities is astonishing,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., senior Republican on the education committee.
Republicans in the House unveiled an alternative to SAFRA that, among other provisions, would keep private student loan equity in the system. Instead of dismantling FFEL, the plan would create a national commission to study student loan policy changes. The GOP plan would increase the maximum Pell Grant but at a smaller amount — $575 — less than half of the SAFRA target. The GOP plan also would use some of the bill’s budget savings to address the federal defi cit rather than increase spending.
While proponents expect the full House to take up the measure in early fall, the Senate has yet to consider the legislation. The bill’s prospects there may depend on who replaces the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., as chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Congressional aides also said the bill is not likely to make additional headway until after the House and Senate figure out what to do about health care, the top issue facing lawmakers and many of their constituents this summer.
Even some education groups want to see improvements once the bill reaches the Senate. For example, the American Association of Community Colleges would like to see the two large new $600 million community college programs merged into one initiative. Any funding that goes directly to states also should have specifi c language requiring that most of the dollars eventually flow to local colleges.
“AACC strongly supports (the bill), but believes that the Senate [education] committee can make critical improvements to that bill’s community college provisions,” the association says.
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