Student aid politics

July 26, 2006

Congressionally approved increases in loan interest rates are hitting college students and their families just as campaigns for fall elections are getting under way. Democrats and Republicans are scrambling to either offer relief or justify their actions before students and parents turn into angry voters. Politicians may be right to pay attention to middle-class voters, but the constituency they should really focus on is low-income students.

At a time when college costs -- and student indebtedness -- continue to rise, Democrats are trying to capitalize on the fact that the Republican-controlled Congress used about $12 billion in savings from student aid programs to help reduce the deficit this year. Adding insult to injury, interest rate increases that had been approved in 2002 went into effect this month for new student loans.

Will that compel more college students to go to the polls this fall? There are enough anticipated close races that Democrats and Republicans are paying attention to this group. Democrat-sponsored bills in Congress would reduce loan interest rates by 50 percent, and the Democratic Governors Association proposes a $150 billion block grant to allow states to sustain higher-education spending and help keep college affordable. Republicans are emphasizing two new student grant programs that are designed to increase America's competitiveness in science, math, technology and foreign languages.

Such efforts are certainly worthy. But they are aimed more at middle-class students and voters, while poor students are being left behind. What would really help level the college playing field is for the federal government to provide more need-based aid, mainly through Pell grants that are targeted to lower-income students. A bill introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, would increase the maximum Pell grant award from $4,050 -- where it has been frozen for four years -- to $5,100. Increases in federal need-based aid help boost student prospects in states like Maryland, which awarded an average of $1,937 in need-based aid to 36,225 students in the state's 2006 fiscal year.

As higher education becomes more of a necessity than a luxury, the federal government can offer discretionary help to middle-class students, but making college affordable and accessible to low-income students should be the top priority.

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