Making College More Accessible

Bidding to take control of Capitol Hill last fall, Democratic candidates vowed to make college more accessible--and more affordable--for American families. The pledge excited education reformers, who had largely focused on No Child Left Behind and the needs of the country’s youngest students during the Bush years. Now that the Democrats run both the House and Senate, the wheels are starting to turn. And late last month, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings hosted the administration’s first higher-education summit and called on colleges to be more accountable to consumers. NEWSWEEK’s Pat Wingert talked to Rep. George Miller, Democrat of California, and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, about where this momentum comes from and where it may be headed.

NEWSWEEK: Does this increased interest by both parties mean that students and their families can expect Washington to make some changes that will really make colleges more accessible and affordable?
George Miller:
I hope so. We clearly made it a priority by including it in our “Six for 06” campaign, and our “first 100 hours” included the cost of college as a top priority, but that was just the beginning. We’ve also cut the interest rates of student loans in half (Stafford loans’ fixed rate drops from the current 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent by 2011), which means significant savings for students over the life of those loans. The estimate is that they’ll save an average of $4,400. That’s a significant amount of money not to have to pay back. I’m going to get a little technical here, but when we came back to the continuing resolution to fund the government for the remainder of this year, we included an increase for Pell Grants of $260, the first increase since 2003. And in the budget resolution bill that we’re debating now, we hope to make room for additional increases in Pell Grants, which means more money going to those in financial need, the students who are under the most pressure about whether they can afford to go to college. A lot of universities and colleges have shifted resources from need-based to merit-based scholarships, so we felt like we needed to give some money back to the students who are most in need. These are tangible, significant results that will benefit students and their families.… Sen. Ted Kennedy and I support the Student-Aid Reward Act, which encourages colleges to direct more students toward direct loans, which have the lowest cost, and we plan to take the savings from that, and recycle it back to schools in the form of need-based financial assistance to students. That could result in another $9 billion in benefits for students. This is all part of a larger program to strengthen and grow the middle class. People can no longer retain their position in the middle class without an education that goes beyond high school. People need two-year, four-year or graduate degrees.

As you point out, cost is an increasingly big concern for families hoping to send their kids to college. In the last six years, four-year colleges have increased their prices by more than 40 percent, after inflation. Increasing financial aid and lowering loan interest rates help, but can you also slow down tuition increases?
There are things that the government can do, but it’s also important to talk about what colleges can do, what responsibilities they have to deliver an education that’s affordable. We plan to continue that conversation, and directly confront them about what their responsibilities are. But we also know it’s not easy for public colleges when their state legislatures cut their funding. They end up having to raise tuition to make up the difference. If we’re putting more money in at the federal level, we need to see that they are making the most efficient use of it…. We’re trying to find ways to provide immediate relief to families and students, but we also want to know what the colleges can do, so we can all move to the next stage. We don’t want to see another 40 percent increase in another five years that nullifies everything that we’re doing today.

The most popular proposal--as far as colleges are concerned--is more money for Pell Grants. After five years of flat funding, the Bush administration says it supports increasing these grants so that they cover 70 percent of the average cost of in-state tuition, rather than the current 44 percent. The estimated cost would be $9 billion to $12 billion? Is this likely to happen?
My first question is, where were they on this for the last five to seven years? But yes, I think we will be able to increase the size of Pell Grants, and my guess is that we’ll get as close to $4,600 a year (maximum) as we can .… It is fiscally responsible to put the money where the priorities of the nation are. But remember that the Republicans took $12 billion out of the student-loan program last year and gave it away as tax cuts.  I think they have so little credibility on this issue.

Many of the proposals on the table are aimed at low-income students. But because of skyrocketing tuitions, affordability is a growing issue with middle-class families, too. Are there any proposals likely to pass that would make college more affordable for them, too?
Direct student loans lower the cost of college for students, and are available to families making up to $70,000 a year. We also introduced the Student Loan Sunshine Act, (which requires disclosure of any agreement or relationship between colleges and the financial institutions providing loans on campus). That will help middle-class students.

A few weeks ago, a bill was introduced in the House to greatly simplify the cumbersome process of applying for federal student financial aid. Meanwhile the administration announced the creation of a new tool designed to help families estimate how much aid students can expect to get. Is this a new indication of competition or cooperation between Congress and the Department of Education?
What we’re seeing is what happens when a country gets stuck with a one-party government and doesn’t feel it needs to do anything on this topic. Since November, we’ve been able to inject some competition into the care of vets and the costs of going to college. [Democratic Rep.] Rahm Emanuel introduced this bill to fix the financial-aid form in the legislature last year, and it didn’t pass. As he says, it’s easier to get a loan from the World Bank than it is to get a loan for your child to go to college, and that’s just ridiculous. There shouldn’t be these kinds of barriers, and every sector can see how important it is that a maximum number of students get an advanced education. But with all due respect, the Republicans had not been responding. Now that we have a Democratic Congress, the administration is scrambling.

A lot of the focus on education these days remains on reforming the No Child Left Behind program. Do you think it will be renewed?
Sen. [Ted] Kennedy [Democrat of Massachusetts], Sen. [Michael] Enzi [Republican of Wyoming], [Republican Rep. Buck] McKeon [of California] and I all met with the president on No Child Left Behind, and it is a high priority for all of us. If we don’t get No Child Left Behind right, more students will find that they will be borrowing money to pay for the remedial classes they have to take in college. Right now, about 35 percent of state college students need remedial education. If we can make No Child Left Behind a success, that’s another way we can reduce the cost of college. I was one of the original coauthors of that bill, and I think we have learned a lot in the last five years. It will pass, but we will make changes to it.