Congress eases college students’ financial woes

This year, the Democratic-led Congress passed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which will provide the largest increase in college financial aid since the GI Bill of Rights of 1944, and it does so at no new cost to U.S. taxpayers. The president signed this historic legislation into law last week. We couldn’t be prouder of any of our accomplishments.

In today’s global economy, a college education is often the minimum level required to get a good secure job. Still, college is becoming something only the wealthy can provide for their children, while the rest of America finds itself saddled with massive loans and out-of-control interest rates. Every year, some 200,000 students do not go to college solely because they can’t afford it.

In-state tuition and expenses at Ohio University in Athens, for example, have climbed from $14,463 in 2001 to $20,913 this year. That’s a staggering 44 percent increase in just five years – an increase that’s right in line with what’s happening on most of the nation’s college campuses. The good news here is that due to the leadership of Gov. Strickland and Chancellor Fingerhut, the cost of college tuition in the state will not go up in the next two years.

While the governor’s moratorium freezes tuition costs, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act will increase college financial aid by more than $20 billion over the next five years. That’s more than $1.1 billion for college students in Ohio. The bill pays for itself by cutting excessive federal subsidies paid to lenders in the college loan industry by $20.9 billion. It also includes $750 million in federal budget deficit reduction.

To reduce the cost of loans for millions of student borrowers, the legislation will cut interest rates in half on need-based student loans, from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent over the next four years. Once fully phased in, this will save the typical student borrower — with $13,800 in need-based student loan debt — $4,400 over the life of the loan. More than 173,000 students in Ohio take out need-based loans each year at four-year public schools.

In addition, the legislation will prevent student borrowers from facing unmanageable levels of federal student debt by guaranteeing that borrowers will never have to spend more than 15 percent of their yearly discretionary income on loan repayments.

In a critical step to expand access to college, the bill will increase the maximum Pell Grant scholarship by $490 in 2008 and by $1,090 over the next five years. This will restore the purchasing power of the Pell Grant — raising the scholarship from $4,050 in 2006 to $5,400 by 2012.

The College Cost Reduction and Access Act also includes a number of other provisions that will ease the financial burden imposed on students and families by the cost of college, which include the following:

– Providing upfront tuition assistance of $4,000 per year — for a maximum of $16,000 — for excellent undergraduate students who commit to teaching in public schools in high-poverty communities or high-need subject areas.

– Encouraging and rewarding public service by providing loan forgiveness after 10 years of public service and loan payments for military service members, first responders, law enforcement officers, firefighters, nurses, public defenders, prosecutors, early childhood educators, librarians and others.

This is an investment in our country. Making college more affordable will make our economy more competitive. More than ever, the health of our economy rests on having a highly skilled and well educated workforce. Indeed, last year, it was projected that, by the year 2020, the United States would face a shortage of up to 12 million college-educated workers — unless action was taken.

Fortunately, we took action.

The above column was submitted by U.S. Reps. Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Charlie Wilson (D-OH).