Senate Panel Tackles College Affordability “Crisis”

Increasing the maximum Pell Grant and reducing loan interest rates are two chief strategies the U.S. Congress is taking to help students. But witnesses at a Senate hearing offered a variety of ideas for improving the financial aide system, some of them beginning with colleges themselves.

With $40,000 in loan debt, Jennifer Pae knows the challenges of first-generation students trying to afford a college education. Subsidized and unsubsidized loans — plus grant aid — make up her portfolio, but she’s working to see that future students graduate borrow less.

“Students need to graduate with manageable levels of debt,” she said as the U.S. Senate began a wide-ranging hearing Friday on student loan borrowing. As president of the United States Student Association, Pae brought a group of about 40 students to pack the standing-room-only hearing, which featured some heavy hitters from education and finance, including author and financial talk show host Suze Orman.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called the hearing to draw expert input about how best to reform the nation’s financial aid system. Kennedy called college affordability a “crisis,” noting that many youth with the grades and interest to go to college simply cannot afford it.

“It’s a crisis that’s tarnishing the American dream for millions, and we in Congress can’t ignore it any longer,” Kennedy said at the hearing of the Senate’s education committee, which he chairs.

Increasing the maximum Pell Grant and reducing loan interest rates are two chief strategies to help students, Kennedy said. But witnesses at the hearing offered a variety of ideas for improvement, some of them beginning with colleges themselves.

“Our process is a disgrace,” said Jon Oberg, a former researcher at the U.S. Department of Education. Oberg was particularly critical of the practice known as enrollment management, in which colleges provide their own financial aid to high-achieving students who may need little assistance.

At the same time, he said, some of these same institutions offer only small aid packages to needy students, which all but assures that they will not enroll at the institution. Some colleges also steer students toward their own preferred lenders regardless of the students’ best interest.

This imperfect system takes its highest toll on low-income students, who may deal with unfair loan terms or simply fail to apply for college. In one year alone, about 400,000 students with a quality academic record failed to attend college due to their low family incomes, said Tamara Draut, director of economic opportunity at Demos, a nonpartisan public policy organization.

“The least bright wealthy kids attend college at the same rate as the smartest poor kids,” she told the panel.

To Orman, student loan borrowing is “good debt,” meaning it will yield long-term benefits for those who complete college. But that may be a hard sell when debt for college easily can run $20,000 to $60,000.

“Your reality is that you have a lot of debt that you feel pressured to pay off, and that debt load affects your entire financial life,” she said.

–Charles Dervarics


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