Thursday, September 27, 2007

New student aid law a huge step forward.

Today President Bush signed a landmark piece of legislation that was sent to him by the Democratic Congress. The legislation, called the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, does what the Republican Congress failed to do: help financial aid keep up with the skyrocketing costs of college that have made it unaffordable for millions of would-be students.

The bill will expand the PELL program by $11.4 billion over the next five years and increase the maximum PELL grant from $4,310 in 2007 to $5,400 by 2012. While this is not everything that it could be (with many students even at state universities having to pay upwards of $25,000 annually for tuition, fees, books, room and board, and other expenses), it does represent a realization of how fast college costs have been increasing as state and federal budget cuts force college boards to increase tuition and fees by large amounts and on a yearly or almost yearly basis.

Beyond that, the bill does a lot of other things. For example, it allows active duty members of the military to defer their payments while they are in the service, and even for a year after they leave. It is amazing to me that with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this had not been attended to earlier, but I guess it takes a Democratic Congress to do more for our servicemen and servicewomen than just say nice things about them and wave a flag around. It also cuts the interest rate on Federally backed student loans in half, making repayment easier for students who leave college with a mountain of debt and then have to pay it back while they are just starting on their careers.

In fact, if those careers involve teaching, the bill goes even farther-- it gives students the option to actually have student debt forgiven if they teach for at least a few years after college. Local school districts are limited by their budgets and often cannot afford to compete for the best talent from universities because they can't pay as much as they could earn in the private sector. But this provision in the law amounts to a huge strengthening of the hand of school boards, as a teaching job will now be much more competitive with private sector jobs even though the school board may not have to spend a dime more than they would have. More to the point, this represents a real and concrete investment in education.

The President issued a terse signing statement in which he expressed his displeasure with certain aspects of the law (though he did sign it) but nevertheless it is a law today.

And don't let anyone lie to you-- this was a huge achievement by Congress with the reluctant agreement of the President. It is a very big step forward.

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