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Letter to higher education conferees working out differences on college affordability bills

August 02, 2007

Dear Conferee:

On behalf of the National Education Association's (NEA) 3.2 million members, including some 200,000 students, faculty, and staff at postsecondary institutions, we would like to offer our views as you craft a conference agreement reconciling differences between the House-passed College Cost Reduction Act and the Senate-passed Higher Education Access Act.

Since 1965, the Higher Education Act (HEA) has embodied the nation's commitment to ensure, as a matter of basic fairness, that no one is denied a college education because of his or her financial circumstances. And, a college degree is more necessary than ever these days. Access to postsecondary education allows individuals to succeed in jobs with career potential and upward mobility. Expanding postsecondary education opportunities also helps ensure a well-educated workforce that is competitive for the 21st century. Yet, over 100,000 college-eligible students drop out of applying to college due to cost. And more and more students graduate with deep debt, making it very difficult for them to enter socially valuable but lower-paying fields such as teaching.

Both the House and Senate bills would make help make postsecondary education more financially accessible. In crafting the conference agreement, we urge you to accept provisions from each bill that will help make the dream of higher education a reality for the most students. Specifically, we urge you to:

  • Combine Senate and House provisions to maximize the Pell Grant award. The Senate bill establishes a new Promise Grant program with increases to $5,100 next year and to $5,400 by 2011. The House bill would increase the Pell Grant maximum to $5,200 by 2012. The maximum Pell Grant award was increased slightly to $4,310 in the FY07 continuing resolution, after being frozen for four years in a row at $4,050. When the Pell Grant program was first created, the maximum grant for the poorest students covered 84 percent of the cost of a public four-year college. Today, it covers only 39 percent.

  • Accept House provisions that would cut interest rates in half on subsidized student loans over the next five years and that would cancel student debt after 20 years. The Senate bill does not include a rate cut, but would cancel student debt after 25 years. Federal student loan programs provide critical access to postsecondary education to low- and middle-income students and their families. Unfortunately, with college costs on the rise, more students have to take out greater loans to cover their tuition and other college costs, while incurring record student debt. In 2003-04, the median student debt borrowed to finance a bachelor's degree was $19,300.

  • Accept House provisions that would create new TEACH grants. These grants will, for the first time since just after World War II, provide the kind of financial support needed to those entering the important profession of teaching. This program will no doubt be seen in the same shining light as the GI bill, providing a foundation for a strong, effective teaching force.

  • Accept House provisions creating an Asian American and Pacific Islander Higher Education Serving Institution designation. Such a designation has long been a goal of NEA.

  • Accept Senate provisions increasing the family income level under which a student is automatically eligible for the maximum Pell Grant from $20,000 to $30,000, in order to improve access to higher education for working families.

  • Accept Senate provisions forgiving the remaining student loan balance after 10 years for those working in public service fields or fulfilling other national needs, as a means to reward dedicated public servants, and accept House provisions to forgive up to $5,000 in loans for students who enter law enforcement, firefighting, nursing, and other public service fields, as a means to encourage public service careers.

We thank you for your consideration of our views on these important issues.


Diane Shust, Director of Government Relations

Randall Moody, Manager of Federal Advocacy