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The priorities for the new Democratic Congress include a promise to make college more affordable. If lawmakers keep that promise, it will be welcome news to low-income students. But keeping even part of the promise will also be very expensive.
Here's NPR's Larry Abramson.
LARRY ABRAMSON: When the Senate changes hands in January, the chairmanship of the Health, Education and Pensions Committee will transfer to a man with a long memory. Speaking on the Senate floor last week, Senator Ted Kennedy said he can still remember back to 1965 when Congress passed a law to guarantee access to college.
Senator TED KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): And that time, when we finally passed the higher education legislation, there was about 78 percent grants, 22 percent loans at that time. Now, it's almost reversed.
ABRAMSON: The growing reliance on loans means students leave college with record levels of debt. So Kennedy and other Democrats are promising to cut in half the interest rates on federally subsidized student loans.
Financial aid experts say that's great news. But they caution the benefit would be limited. Sandy Baum, senior policy analyst with The College Board says a growing number of students must borrow not from the government, but from private banks.
Ms. SANDY BAUM (The College Board): If they cut interest rates on student loans, that will be very helpful to former students. And that's important to people who have already finished their education. But it will be less and less helpful as students rely more and more on private loans.
ABRAMSON: Baum says Congress will have to choose which students need the most help getting to college. She and other financial aid experts say the top priority should be expanding federal grants to the students most in need, known as Pell Grants.
Ms. BAUM: They go almost exclusively to people, often families with incomes less than $40,000 or maybe $50,000, and to independent students with low incomes. So raising the Pell Grant, which has not been raised for several years, would make a significant difference in how much money these people have to pay for college.
ABRAMSON: If Senator Kennedy and House Democrats have their way, Pell Grants will rise substantially.
Senator KENNEDY: We will increase the Pell Grants from $4,050 to $5,100.
ABRAMSON: Nice, but Pell Grants have remained flat for the past five years while tuition rates had been soaring. The challenge facing Congress, according to Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, is that raising funding for Pell Grants, even a little bit, costs a lot.
Mr. TERRY HARTLE (Senior Vice President, American Council on Education): The standard metric is that a $100 increase in the maximum Pell Grant costs about $350 million, because so many people get Pell Grants.
ABRAMSON: Approximately five million people right now. That means that the despite the budget deficit, Congress will have to approve billions in additional spending to fulfill the Democrats' promise on Pell Grants and on limiting interest rates.
Congressional promises aim at helping the vast bulk of students get through school, but lawmakers often leave out students whose individual circumstances make college too expensive.
Tally Hart, a financial aid official with Ohio State University, says she's seeing a new problem: needy students who aren't quite poor enough.
Ms. TALLY HART (Director of Student Financial Aid, Ohio State University): Students who are just a little too affluent, and I really mean a little, to get a Pell Grant are now the neediest students on our campus because a lot of programs have been targeted to the most needy students.
ABRAMSON: Financial aid folks say raising support even by just a few hundred dollars will persuade some students to go to school rather than going straight to work. Just as importantly, they say that more aid will keep struggling students from taking on another job.
College students who work too many hours, they say, are more likely to give up and drop out.
Larry Abramson, NPR News. Washington.
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