Westminster Word: Financial situations stay the same

Several weeks ago, the House of Representatives passed what Speaker Nancy Pelosi alleges is the “single largest investment in aid to help students and families pay for college in history, and at no cost to taxpayers.” This legislation, titled the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, will save taxpayers an alleged $87 billion over 10 years, though the director of the Congressional Budget Office Douglas Elmendorf believes a savings of $40-47 billion is a more realistic figure. However, Republicans claim it will cost billions of dollars over the long term.

The House spent much of the debate over this bill on a key provision — that the government would stop subsidizing private loans to the banks. Democrats believed that doing so would help students receive fairer loans, while Republicans viewed the bill as a government takeover of yet another industry. One thing that Congress did not seem too interested in was actually deciding whether colleges would become significantly more affordable for students and their families.

Most students are aware that the cost of college tuition is soaring well beyond the affordability it once had. Across the country, students are looking at financial aid packages, and sometimes realizing that, even with loans that provide near full-tuition aid, they cannot attend a school because they could never afford the loan payments. Add the fear many graduates have of not finding a job at all, or the fact that student loans are nearly impossible to discharge — even in bankruptcy — and it’s easy to see why students are fearful of college costs.

The House’s bill includes many comprehensive benefits to the overall education experience such as $2.5 billion over the next year to help community colleges build green construction. Another provision that most students will be thrilled about is a simplified FAFSA application process.

Unfortunately, these changes are not addressing the real burden that students are facing: the rising costs of college tuition. Thanks to this bill, the Pell Grant will be seeing an unprecedented rise in maximum award over the next 10 years — by 2019 the award will be valued at $6,910. However, this will ultimately do little to affect the cost of tuition. Like health care, the rising cost of college is outpacing the cost of living. The average costs in 2008-2009 for private and public colleges rose about 6 percent each. Even last year, colleges and universities raised tuition, in some instances, close to 10 percent from the previous year. Students cannot count on this modest rise in the Pell Grant to suddenly make their education affordable.

Private universities, such as Harvard, have taken steps to ensure the affordability of their undergraduate degrees to all students, including a sliding scale where no more than 10 percent of a family’s income is spent on the cost of a student’s education in certain economic brackets. However, most colleges and universities simply do not have the financial resources to fund such a program, and it is unlikely that this could be a national solution to tuition costs.

It is unfortunate that families worried about college tuition costs are one of the biggest silent lobbies in this nation. Parents and students are frightened that their golden ticket to the middle class (that shiny B.A., B.S., or B.M.) might soon evaporate if nothing is done to address their concerns. Our nation needs to get serious about solving the cost of education crisis, not through small gimmicks, but through real reform that will make access to higher education more affordable for everyone.

– Anthony Baron, junior piano & voice performance major.

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