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Education Advocates Pushing Hard to Get Piece of Stimulus Pie

More than a dozen education and consumer groups asked Congress on Thursday for a 50 percent increase in the maximum Pell Grant and a 25 percent hike in college work-study as part of an economic stimulus package scheduled for consideration soon.

The coalition called for the new investments over the next two years as part of “a bold and comprehensive response” to the recession. If approved, the maximum Pell would move from $4,731 to $7,000, while another $250 million would go to work-study.

“We’re talking a significant bump up in Pell,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The association is one of the organizations signing on to a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that outlined the proposals, citing the need to help struggling families who cannot pay for college.

Other education groups signing on to the plan include the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, State Higher Education Executive Officers, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the United States Student Association. The National Consumer Law Center and Project on Student Debt are other co-sponsors.

The move comes as automakers, mayors and other sectors are putting pressure on Congress for new federal spending to combat the recession. After passing a $700 billion financial bailout largely aimed at Wall Street, lawmakers are planning a large “Main Street” economic stimulus package with public works and construction spending and, education leaders hope, some attention to postsecondary education.

“I think everybody is going to fight for their fair share,” Nassirian says of the current budget climate.

As a result, long-time concerns about deficit spending and limited resources have all but vanished. “The budget always has checkmated many policy ideas we presented in the past,” Nassirian says. Of the abrupt shift in tone in Washington, he says, “It’s extraordinary.”

The 13 groups signing the student aid letter also called for investments beyond Pell Grants and college work-study. Another proposal calls for an “emergency access” student loan program open only to students attending colleges making more need-based financial aid available during the next two years.

The coalition also wants improved access to PLUS Loans for parents through changes in paperwork requirements. Specifically, the groups want a simpler application form that does not require the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Coalition members say many parents are now looking to PLUS loans because of failing investments and an inability to use home equity lines because of falling real estate prices.

The new plan is designed to give education a seat at the table when lawmakers finally consider a new economic stimulus package. After discussing a new package, lawmakers want to wait until after President-elect Obama’s inauguration in January to act on it.

So far, the president-elect has identified several priorities for a new stimulus package, including middle-class tax relief and investments in public infrastructure.

While Obama has listed public school improvements among his infrastructure priorities, higher education advocates clearly are hoping that he and Congress will broaden that focus to include additional postsecondary investments.

In addition to student aid, another priority may be funding for construction and facilities at colleges and universities. Several sources tell Diverse that several higher education groups are working on a separate stimulus plan calling for these investments, with final proposals likely to emerge soon. That proposal is likely to target public and community colleges, with investments targeting facilities and technology improvements, the sources say.

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