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Sweeping Changes to Higher Ed Proposed

A senior U.S. Senate Democrat is proposing a sweeping higher education bill with a Pell Grant increase, more funding for the nation’s tribal colleges and scholarships to students who study science, math and engineering.

The Education Competitiveness Act from Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, would raise the maximum Pell Grant to $6,000 for low-income students. The current maximum grant of $4,050 has not increased since 2003.

To encourage enrollment in math, science and engineering, the senator would offer four-year scholarships to 25,000 students who commit to study the disciplines in college and then take a teaching position for at least four years. Another 25,000 students could receive scholarships for graduate-level study, again in exchange for a teaching commitment.

“Smart folks around the globe are getting jobs that used to belong exclusively to American workers,” Baucus said in presenting the plan. “There’s no guarantee that America will always be number one.”

The plan has two major components to help American Indian students. For tribal colleges, the plan would increase per-student support to $7,000. The current limit is $4,447 for each full-time student. Colleges with small endowments also could become eligible for a tax-exempt bond program that usually funds school renovations. Tribal colleges could use these Qualified Zone Academy Bonds for renovations, teacher training, course materials and other educational programs.

The bill also would increase federal support for the Johnson O’Malley program, a U.S. Department of the Interior initiative that provides supplemental support to K-12 American Indian students in public schools. The extra funding would make up for recent cutbacks, says Lillian A. Sparks, executive director of the National Indian Education Association.

“Every year, they’ve been flat funded, and several schools have been zeroed out,” she says.

To promote improvements in the education pipeline, the plan also calls for universal, voluntary pre-kindergarten for all children under the age of 5. It would provide matching funds so states can create quality pre-K programs and would create scholarships for 25,000 undergraduates to pursue early childhood degrees and teaching careers. The plan also would provide grants to states for collaborative educational efforts, spanning the years from preschool through higher education.

Another provision of the Baucus plan would simplify various college-related tax credits into a single Higher Education Credit of up to $2,000 per student. The credit would be refundable, meaning that families with little or no tax liability could receive benefits. It would cover fees, books, supplies and equipment as well as tuition.

Also on the tax side, the proposal would allow college graduates to deduct $3,000 in student loan interest payments annually. Employees also would be able to deduct up to $7,000 a year of employer-provided education assistance, so they can upgrade and improve their skills.

Baucus says his entire plan is costly, perhaps requiring as much as $2.5 billion over five years. But he believes Congress must consider the investment. “We just have to step it up on education,” he says. “It is expensive.”

There is no companion measure in the U.S. House of Representatives yet, and Baucus acknowledges he is not looking for any action until a new Congress convenes next year. In recent years, congressional Republicans generally have resisted large education spending increases, citing budget constraints and a greater need for accountability. But Democrats are hoping to pick up enough seats in the midterm elections in November to retake control of Congress.

— By Charles Dervarics


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