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On the Hill

Funding our Futures

Debbi Mack

With college costs soaring and need-based aid sagging, some education students wonder if there’s relief in sight.


There is less incentive than ever to pursue a career in education, due in part to the precipitous decline of college affordability and lack of funding for financial aid programs, according to a recent report on American higher education.

Measuring Up 2006 , the fourth biennial “report card” on post-secondary education from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, notes that low affordability creates a huge financial disincentive for students to work in the field of education. Even though student financial assistance has increased since 1991, it has not kept up with rising tuition and other costs of attending college, forcing students to rely on more loans.

“After completing my bachelor’s degree [in elementary education] in four years, I found myself over $30,000 in loan re-payment debt,” Anthony Daniels, chairperson of the NEA Student Program, testified before the U.S. Department of Education last November. “At that point, I wondered how I could possibly survive on a first-year teacher salary of $28,000 in the state of Alabama.”

Daniels said he is seeking a master’s in special education so he can earn more. However, he cited studies showing that the typical student borrower amasses almost $20,000 in debt before leaving school, making fewer of them able to pursue teaching, social work, or other public interest careers.

The neediest students are feeling the greatest financial pinch. According to Measuring Up, even though the cost of a four-year post-secondary education as a percentage of income increased for all families between 1992 and 2005, the increase for families in the lowest income bracket was substantially higher than for families with more income.

The report suggests the disproportionate financial burden on low-income students is due to inadequate support for need-based aid programs. Although funding for the federal Pell Grant program, the nation’s biggest financial aid source for low-income college students, increased by 84 percent between 1991 and 2005, the amount of four-year college tuition the average Pell Grant covered during that period dropped from 76 percent to 48 percent.

 Most other state and federal student financial aid programs aren’t need-based and some even exclude the most financially needy from eligibility. And institutional money tends to get directed to middle- and high-income families, because colleges and universities use financial aid programs to attract students with higher SAT scores in order to achieve higher rankings.

In his testimony, Daniels criticized the federal government for cutting almost $12 billion from federal student aid programs last year and by proposing in the President’s FY 2007 budget to cut $1.2 billion more from higher education programs.

Democratic Congressional leaders claim an increase in need-based financial aid is a top priority, and in its 2007 spending plan the House proposed raising the maximum Pell Grant amount for the first time in five years. The proposal will have a hard time getting passed, however, because of the pressure of other funding priorities.

Free Thinking Under Fire

Protecting the freedom of students and professors on campus is a good thing, right? But the so-called “Academic Bill of Rights” (ABoR), which claims to combat alleged bias and discrimination against conservative students, actually aims to restrict what professors present and students discuss in class.

That’s why Pennsylvania State Education Association Student Program (PSEA-SP) Member Jessica Sabol (pictured, left) testified before a committee of the Pennsylvania legislature against ABoR,

In her testimony, Sabol said the school she attended, Bloomsburg University, had “an atmosphere where different opinions and political beliefs were welcomed and encouraged,” along with an adequate grievance procedure to handle any problems that arose.

Sabol said one reason she jumped at the chance to testify against the measure before she graduated was frustration over the government’s proposal to legislate on what she and several students at other Pennsylvania colleges believed to be a nonexistent problem.

Pennsylvania joins 20 other states in rejecting legislation based on ABoR, according to a statement from Free Exchange on Campus, a coalition founded by NEA Higher Education, the NEA Student Program, and other educational and civil liberties groups (online at

Free Exchange contends that ABoR actually restricts students’ ability to learn and furthers a conservative political agenda. The coalition has fought state and federal legislation intended to enact ABoR in any form.

Although no state has enacted an ABoR-related statute to date, the Georgia senate and the Colorado legislature passed resolutions in 2004 that supported changing state school policies to include ABoR. Colorado colleges and universities agreed to review and publicize their existing policies. Colleges and universities in Tennessee and Ohio have also agreed to review existing policies for compliance with ABoR-related issues. A federal House bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act included ABoR provisions, but the bill failed when Congress adjourned in December.

Sabol is pleased that “the [Pennsylvania ] committee had enough confidence in the current system to just leave [the colleges] alone” and found “there’s not a problem that they can’t control themselves.”


Join the Campaign!

Join in NEA’s efforts to make college tuition affordable for students and their families. Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Receive action alerts via NEA’s text messaging system. To participate and receive updates on college affordability, text the word student to 35328 on your cell phone.
  • Join our group on called “College Affordability Concerns Me.” Invite your friends to be part of this important discussion.
  • Take a look at the political action video, designed by Student members to bring out the political activist in every college student. Tell your friends to check it out!

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