Few perks for students in Higher Ed. Act

A bill intended to amend and reauthorize federal funding for higher education is doing little to make college more affordable.

The College Access and Opportunity Act of 2005 was passed by Congress on March 30 and is currently awaiting approval by the Senate. Congress, in this instance, is approving how much money could be spent on specific programs. Pell Grants, for example, have been authorized since 1993 to allow a maximum grant of $5,800, yet the highest amount given to any one student for fiscal year 2006 was $4,050.

“This Higher Education Bill did nothing to make college more affordable for students. It only has a $500 increase in the maximum allowable Pell Grant. It really doesn’t change the reality for students,” said Brian Branton, legislative director for Congressman David Wu.

Wu tried to pass an amendment that would increase the maximum allowable Pell Grant amount to $8,000 over a five-year period, but the bill was not approved.

Wu has spoken out about his disappointment with the current administration’s cuts to student aid in the past. Back in February, Congress voted to cut $12 billion from those funds in the biggest reduction in student aid in history. “This $12 billion, taken from America’s college students, is one of the two saddest events during my seven years in Congress,” he said.

Wu was able to make some amendments to the bill, including a provision encouraging more students to pursue careers in teaching thorough funding dual degree programs. Oregon State University has already begun this process, allowing students to achieve a teaching degree together with a degree in another area.

Also approved was an amendment to examine the cause of high-priced textbooks for students. The Department of Education’s advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance will investigate the publishers and bookstores, and will discuss with faculty and institutions ways to decrease book costs and recommend actions to Congress.

Along with fellow Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, and Vern Ehlers of Michigan, Wu sponsored another amendment focused on sustainability and initiating the process for holding a summit to bring together experts in higher education. “Our amendment will encourage colleges and universities, like Portland State University in my district, to educate the next generation of scientists, engineers, planners, and business professionals to help in the development of new tools and strategies for environmental and resource conservation, energy efficiency and more sustainable development,” Wu said.

With Portland State’s sustainability programs for students and practices on campus, President Daniel Bernstine is hoping PSU might hold such a meeting. “The amendment advanced – by Congressmen Blumenauer, Ehlers and Wu brings national attention to the role that higher education institutions must play in developing sustainability operations and programs. Portland State University stands ready to work with the secretary of education, business leaders, and federal agency leaders on the summit on sustainability.”

“This is an official invitation for the secretary to hold the summit in Portland, Ore., the nation’s most advanced sustainability laboratory,” Bernstine said.

Such a summit will not, however, help students pay for rising tuition costs amidst decreasing financial aid funds. “At the end of the day, even in the light of my successes, this bill represents a missed opportunity to help American families pay for college. We can, and must, do more to ensure our students continue their education and are able to compete in the global economy,” Wu said.