Published Online: October 10, 2006
Published in Print: October 11, 2006, as Democrats Hope to Seize Higher Ed. Issue

Democrats Hope to Seize Higher Ed. Issue

Minority party says it would boost Pell Grants, focus on affordability.

Democratic lawmakers and candidates seeking to regain a majority in Congress are working to convince voters that they would do more to help students pay for college than the Republicans, highlighting proposals to increase Pell Grants and make college loans cheaper for student borrowers.

The two top Democrats on education issues, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, point to changes in the federal student-loan program, made in the Deficit Reduction Act earlier this year, to support their contention that their Republican colleagues are not serious about increasing college affordability.

The measure, which passed in February, was aimed at trimming mandatory spending to reduce the federal budget deficit. It will cut more than $12 billion over the next five years out of the student-loan program.

“That money was turned into tax cuts for the wealthiest people in the country,” Rep. Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said on a conference call last month with reporters. “This is a generation of people who believe their children may not do as well as they have. [Higher education] is the key to whether those children prosper.”

House Democratic leaders have proposed increasing the maximum Pell Grant from $4,050 currently to $5,800 in fiscal year 2008. Sen. Kennedy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has introduced a bill that would increase it to $5,100.

To make it easier for students to repay their loans, Mr. Kennedy sponsored a measure that would cap federal student-loan payments at 15 percent of a borrower’s monthly “discretionary” income for some low income and middle income borrowers with heavy loan burdens and would forgive student-loan balances after 25 years. Student borrowers who work in the public sector, such as teachers, would have their loans forgiven after 10 years. Democrats in both the House and the Senate have also proposed cutting interest rates on federal student loans in half, from the current 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent

“The student-loan program is working very, very well for banks, but not working for middle-class families,” Mr. Kennedy said on a conference call with reporters last month.

Sizable Sums

Steve Forde, a spokesman for Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee, said Congress set the 6.8 percent interest rate in 2001 with bipartisan support. He said Republican education leaders in the House have provided information on how lawmakers arrived at the 6.8 percent rate to GOP incumbents seeking to defend their seats in the Nov. 7 midterm elections.

“There’s been an organized effort to spread [the Democrats’] version of the facts, and members have been hearing about it in their districts,” Mr. Forde said. He agreed that college affordability has been a higher-profile issue in this election cycle than in past years, but said Democrats’ claims that Republicans have not been active on the issue are inaccurate.

He cited the new Academic Competitiveness Grants, which provide additional federal aid to Pell Grant-eligible college freshmen and sophomores who took rigorous courses in high school, and the Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent, or SMART, grants, which give extra money to Pell-eligible juniors and seniors who major in mathematics, science, or certain foreign languages. The grants were created under the deficit-reduction legislation.

Democrats’ College Plans

Political analysts suggest that the Democrats may retake one or both chambers of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. On their agenda for higher education, congressional Democrats have proposed:

• Increasing the maximum Pell Grant from $4,050 to as much as $5,800 next year;

• Doubling the HOPE scholarship tax credit from $1,500 to $3,000 per student

• Cutting interest rates on federal student loans in half; and

• Providing loan forgiveness for students who work in the public sector.

“College access is probably the committee’s most prevalent education issue this election cycle,” Mr. Forde said. It has been more prominent than K-12 policy issues, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, he said.

Some higher education lobbyists question whether the Democrats will be able to deliver on their college proposals even if they gain control of Congress.

“You’re talking about very sizable sums of money. The idea of where they’re going to get the funding would be the $64 question,” said Edward M. Elmendorf, the senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a Washington-based group that represents more than 430 public institutions.

If the Democrats regain control of one or both houses, some of the changes they envision could make their way into the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which passed the House in March but has yet to be considered on the floor of the Senate. Most insiders do not expect the measure to pass this year, so lawmakers will have to begin again when a new Congress convenes next year.

Last month, Congress passed a bill temporarily extending the numerous federal programs authorized under the Higher Education Act through June 30 of next year. The extension included new language that placed stricter rules on colleges that act as lenders.

Although the issue of college affordability appears to have more resonance with voters this year than in recent election seasons, it has yet to emerge as a top-tier campaign theme.

“It’s been seeping into campaign discussions this fall,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. “But I’ve never seen clear evidence that when somebody walks into a voting booth, they pull someone’s lever based on higher education.”

Vol. 26, Issue 07, Pages 25-26

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