Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Great Education Bill That Isn't Veto-Proof

It's a rare and beautiful thing for the U.S. House to pass a most excellent bill by a wide margin. This week, the reps passed, 273-149, HR 2669, the proposed College Cost Reduction Act of 2007. The problem is, it fell just short of a veto-proof majority, and this is just the kind of bill that George W. Bush will probably salivate for the chance to veto.

HR 2669 is the work of California Rep. George Miller, chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor and long one of Congress' best members. It offers changes more sweeping than anything since the GI Bill of 1944, and would come at no extra cost to the taxpayers. I quote from a news release from Miller's Web site:

The legislation pays for itself by reducing excessive federal subsidies paid to lenders in the college loan industry by $19 billion. It also includes nearly $1 billion in federal budget deficit reduction. ...

Under the legislation, the maximum value of the Pell Grant scholarship would increase by $500 over the next five years. When combined with other Pell scholarship increases passed or proposed by Congress this year, the maximum Pell Grant would reach $4,900 in 2008 and $5,200 in 2011, up from $4,050 in 2006, thus restoring the Pell’s purchasing power. About 6 million low- and moderate-income students would benefit from this increase.

The legislation would cut interest rates in half on need-based student loans, reducing the cost of those loans for millions of student borrowers. Like legislation passed by the House earlier this year, the College Cost Reduction Act would cut interest rates from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent in equal steps over the next five years. Once fully phased-in, this would save the typical student borrower – with $13,800 in need-based student loan debt – $4,400 over the life of the loan. About 6.8 million students take out need-based loans each year.

The legislation would also prevent student borrowers from facing unmanageable levels of federal student debt by guaranteeing that borrowers will never have to spend more than 15 percent of their yearly discretionary income on loan repayments and by allowing borrowers in economic hardship to have their loans forgiven after 20 years.

The College Cost Reduction Act includes a number of other provisions that would ease the financial burden imposed on students and families by the cost of college, including:

-- Tuition assistance for excellent undergraduate students who agree to teach in the nation’s public schools;
-- Loan forgiveness for college graduates that go into public service professions;
Increased federal loan limits so that students won’t have to rely as heavily on costlier private loans;
-- New tuition cost containment strategies;
-- and Landmark investments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions and minority serving institutions.

As someone who went to 6 years of college and grad school on a mix of student loans, grants, academic scholarships, work-study, and nasty and dangerous low-wage jobs, I can attest to how discouraging it is to come out of this experience thousands of dollars in debt. But, there's a loan industry out there that lives off indebted students, and they aren't happy about this legislation.

They've made this into sort of a racket, shifting the balance over decades heavily toward grinding debts for recent graduates. Even highly paid professionals like doctors and lawyers know what this scam is about. They sometimes spend many years burrowing their way out of debt.

Investment in our brightest youths should only make the best kind of sense. But don't count on that argument to be persuasive with the Il Doofus regime. The Grand Wazoo of the Frat House never had to dump any trucks or bus any tables to get through school, nor did he ever have to repay any debt.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, which should make it target practice for the right wing. It got some moderate votes in the House, but it will need two-thirds in both houses to be veto-proof. I won't be holding my breath waiting for this fine legislation to actually become law.