“Give College a Chance”

Jan 212007
Authors: Drew Haugen

Rolling in their newfound political capital scored from November’s mid-term elections, Democrats have been rushing legislation through the House of Representatives under Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “First 100 Hours” legislative agenda with their first House majority in 12 years.

And while Speaker Pelosi has definitely made good on Democratic campaign promises for change and new direction, in a hurry to define themselves as “not Republicans,” Democrats have failed to flesh out solid solutions for the issues they hoped to address, most notability the issue of increasing the affordability and accessibility of higher education.

The College Student Relief Act, passed by a vote of 356-71 in the House last week, would cut student loan interest rates in half over a five year-period if signed into law, slashing interest rates for student loans from its current rate of 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent.

And although this bill would save the average college student borrower an estimated $4,500 over the life of their college loan, this bill strikes at the periphery of the larger issue of higher education’s affordability and accessibility: Increasing educational and tuition costs.

Millions of college students in the United States are racking up debt not because of the interest paid on their loans, but because of the increasingly exorbitant rates of education throughout the nation.

Public funding for higher education institutions, most notably state funds, has precipitously decreased over the past decades, driving tuition costs for the average student up and up.

Colorado is a prime example of tuition raises in the face of state budget cuts for higher education; “Colorful Colorado” now ranks 49th in the nation in per capita funding of higher education, and tuition in the state has steadily increased as a result.

The effects of these budget cuts have been felt, evidenced by the increase of a CSU graduate’s average debt from $13,800 in 2001 to $16,900 in 2005 according to the Project on Student Debt.

The problem in Colorado, and the rest of the nation, is not the interest rate that students pay on their debt. Rather, it is the fact that students are shouldering more and more debt because policymakers are depleting the sources for higher education funding from state and federal budgets, forcing the costs of education onto the students.

The Democratic Congress’ new bill would not relieve a faltering Pell Grant system, either.

For those unfamiliar with Pell Grants, these are grants for the most financially needy of FAFSA applicants.

Budget legislation in 2006 cut federal financial aid for higher education by $12.5 billion, with most of the burden of this cut falling upon the Pell Grant system.

Twenty years ago, Pell Grants covered about 60 percent of the cost of attendance for grant recipients. Today Pell Grants cover less than a third of the cost, topping out at $4,050 in aid per recipient.

A lack of budgetary and legislative support for the strengthening and expansion of the Pell Grant system has weakened the strength of the grants. With increasing tuition and less aid, financially needy students find college becoming more expensive.

The College Student Relief Act, if passed, would do nothing to reform tuition costs or to change the Pell Grant system.

While the College Student Relief Act is a step in the right direction, it stops short of addressing the real issues at stake with America’s higher education system.

If Democrats hope to increase the affordability and accessibility of America’s higher education, they should first look to lower skyrocketing tuition costs and increase federal financial aid for needy students; lower costs equal higher affordability and accessibility in my book.

Drew Haugen is a senior international studies major. His column appears every Monday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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