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Healthcare reform discussions overlook key education triumph

Legislation includes billions of dollars for higher education


WASHINGTON - March 30, 2010 -

Largely lost in the celebration over the passage of healthcare reform was another huge win for students and the rest of the education community: the legislation passed by Congress includes billions of dollars for student financial aid and community colleges.

The legislation also cut banks out of the student loan business as middlemen by putting the federal government in charge of directly lending to students. The savings from that change will help fund a new $36 billion allocation for Pell Grants — the biggest spending boost to the program for low-income students since it was created. Between 2011 and 2017, the individual Pell Grant maximum will raise from $5,500 a year to $5,975. Lawmakers also included a provision to have the Pell Grant amount adjust for inflation. Previously, there was no such adjustment and in some years grant amounts remained stagnant while inflation grew.

Also, it provides roughly $2 billion for grants to community colleges, to help students complete their studies.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel applauded the measure, adding that “Making a college education affordable is a critical step in restoring economic growth and stability to our nation. Increasing both the amount and the availability of Pell Grants and student loans is a good beginning and long overdue.”

The NEA played a key role in the higher education provisions. After numerous delays and setbacks, the year-long effort arrived at a successful and dramatic conclusion.

It was a year ago that President Obama stood in front of Macomb Community College in Michigan, his shirt sleeves rolled up, and laid out an ambitious goal. By 2020, America would once again produce the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

In order to provide community colleges with some of the intended funds outlined in this American Graduation Initiative announced by President Obama, House and Senate negotiators included $2 billion, spread out over four years, for community colleges, in the legislation passed this week. The funds come through an existing Department of Labor program called Trade Adjustment Assistance. While this program traditionally provides direct benefits for training, health insurance support, and other supports to workers who have lost their jobs due to foreign trade, the new funding will provide program support money to community colleges that are often on the frontline of worker training. In the wake of the economic collapse, community colleges have seen enrollments jump significantly as laid-off workers seek training for new employment opportunities. 

"It's difficult enough to keep college students focused on academic success,” said Jim Rice, President of the National Council for Higher Education.  “It's even more difficult when their days are filled with anxiety over how to pay the tuition and fear over the crushing debt many will face after graduation. This legislation goes a long way toward making college affordable to more American young people and in removing the anxiety many current students face over an uncertain economic future.”

As the legislation moved through its final stages, higher ed faculty and staff from across the U.S. began gathering this past weekend in San Jose to strategize about ways to provide a quality education to students even as states cut funding to their schools.

More than 700 faculty and staff from U.S. colleges and universities attended the San Jose gathering. That number includes educators from 4-year comprehensive and research universities as well as educators from community and technical colleges. NEA represents over 200,000 higher education employees in the U.S.

In addition to the solutions to higher ed funding gaps in states, participants exchanged ideas on how to increase and retain the number of women and people of color, both as faculty and students, at all levels of higher education.  Strategies to improve access and the success of students, including Latino students, the fastest growing group of students entering U.S. colleges, were a special focus. 

"As someone who is currently working toward a college degree, I know first-hand the economic strain obtaining a college education places on the entire family,” said Jermaine Coleman, NEAs student president.  “This legislation will go a long way, not only in supporting students, but in protecting the economic security of American families.”

A complete schedule for the gathering can be viewed on www.nea.org/he.

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The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional organization, representing
3.2 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers.

CONTACT: Dana Fisher  (202) 822-7823, dfisher@nea.org