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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

SAFRA-ficed: Student aid act just the first step

On March 30, The Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act of 2009 was signed into law by President Barack Obama as part of HR 4872, also known as the Health Care and Reconciliation Act of 2010. Largely overshadowed by the more sweeping health care implications of the bill in the media, SAFRA will dramatically change the structure of the student loan industry and increase funding to the Pell Grant program by more than $36 billion.

While any legislative action that makes higher education a greater priority in the United States should be lauded, this bill is much less than what it could have been. This is a positive step toward forwarding Obama’s campaign promise to make college more affordable and accessible, but it is just one step in a journey that will undoubtedly prove to be thousands of miles.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, “”The drawn-out battle for … landmark student loan reform resulted in limited gains, providing only a portion of the money the president had sought for some of his key higher education goals.””

In times when states are consistently cutting funding not only to institutions of higher education but also programs that help students pay for college, the federal government could have done much more for current and future college students. Though the rider will give $36 billion to the Pell program, more students are now qualifying for this need-based aid. As Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, explained, “”The president’s initiative has moved from a vast expansion to an effort to maintain and sustain the Pell program.”” According to The Chronicle, “”More than a third of the Pell Grant money in the bill will be used to cover past shortfalls in appropriations rather than to pay for future increases.”” Though the increase in funding to the Pell program affords for an annual inflation rate of about 1 percent, the Congressional Budget Office reports that the rate of inflation for general higher education costs is closer to 3 percent.

Though the U.S. is currently in the no. 10 spot of 30 nations ranked, Obama has said his goal is for the U.S. to be number one in the world by 2020 in measures of college completion. He is not going to be able to meet that goal with such meager allocations to colleges and to programs that help students offset the ever-more-burdensome costs of attending college. While the Pell program should indeed be sustained, Obama and Congressional Democrats should not abandon their earlier goals. Though their efforts passing this legislation, which may have languished otherwise, are commendable, the sacrifices this bill experiences must be made up for with future legislation.

Community colleges bear most of the disappointment with the version of this bill that finally passed: Obama had originally suggested allocating $12 billion over 10 years to restructure and rebuild two-year colleges. The original House bill had $10 billion for community colleges. The final amount included in SAFRA for community colleges was a comparatively paltry $2 billion.

About 39 percent of Americans between 25 and 34 currently hold associate degrees or higher. In Canada, more than 55 percent of people in that same age group have completed the same degree of education. Increasing funding to community colleges should be a priority, as community colleges offer more affordable methods for students to achieve associate degrees and cost-saving options for students who later move on to get four-year degrees.

Though the increase in funding may sound like a large and unnecessary figure to current legislators, higher education should remain a financial priority even and especially in times when money is less abundant. Higher education is a smart option for the U.S. government: as quoted in The Chronicle, FinAid publisher Mark Kantrowitz said a much larger increase in funding to the Pell program would be “”a wise investment for the federal government.”” Kantrowitz calculates that doubling the value of the Pell Grant would produce an average 14 percent return on investment in the form of future income tax revenue.

Obama had big ideas for higher education, and this legislation marks forward motion in regards to reforming the student loan industry and continuing the much-needed Pell program. But he and members of Congress should not metaphorically drop out before achieving their goals, which should still include bolstering community colleges and making higher education as accessible as possible to every inclined American.

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