Increases to Pell Grant wait on pen of president

Students across the country will receive more grant money from the federal government if the president signs bills already passed by the Senate and House of Representatives.

Students across the country will receive more grant money from the federal government if the president signs bills already passed by the Senate and House of Representatives. An increase of $260 per year for the 2007-08 year has already been signed into law by the president.

The College Cost Reduction Act, or HR 2669, would remove $19 billion in federal subsidies to lenders and instead use those funds to benefit students through lower interest rates, increased eligibility for loans and allow for loan repayment through federal employment. The bill would also attempt to limit what colleges can charge students.

Another bill, the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education bill passed by the House in mid-July, would increase the total maximum grant by $360. Along with the earlier increase, the total would be $4,700 next year.

The maximum Pell Grant award would increase to at least $4,900 by 2008 and to $5,400 by 2011 if all three bills are passed into law.

“People are saying that this is the best higher education act to pass since the G.I. Bill,” said Melissa Unger, executive director of the Oregon Student Association. “Our leaders are making it clear that they wanted students to benefit from these changes, and reduce benefits to the loan industry.”

Interest rates on federally subsidized loans would be cut in half, to 3.4 percent by 2012-13, and borrowers would be expected to repay those loans in monthly payments that reflect income. Students would be able to borrow more from federal loan programs, reducing dependency upon private lenders to fill that gap.

Rebecca Thompson, legislative director of the U.S. Students Association, worked directly on the bill and said that the efforts of students, especially in Oregon, have finally paid off.

“We really couldn’t have won these legislative victories if it wasn’t for students across the country,” Thompson said. Students, she said, have contacted elected officials in such large numbers that Congress is prioritizing the issue.

“For the first time in years, this is a national priority, right up there with health care,” Thompson said.

Oregon students, Thompson said, have been particularly vocal, and need to continue being outspoken to see the bill become law.

The bill will proceed into a congressional committee and then onto the president, who has already vowed to veto it, Thompson said.

“The president has threatened to veto many of the bills that would really help students and families,” Thompson said, “so it is really important that students continue to put pressure on Congress.”

David Wu, D-Ore., has been an ally to students, Thompson said, prioritizing their needs. Wu voted to pass the bill, along with senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore.

“This is really good news for Oregon’s students,” said Jillian Schoene, communications director for Wu. “This is the direction we need to be going to restore the purchasing power of the Pell Grant.”

Schoene added that these funds used to cover significantly more of college costs in years past. She estimated that 62,000 college students in Oregon would benefit from the increases, and an additional 7,000 to 8,000 students would be eligible for aid.

Over five million college students receive financial aid from the federal government, and the Pell Grant is the largest source of funding for many of those students.

If the president vetoes the Higher Education Act, Congress can overturn his veto, Thompson said, with a two-thirds majority vote.