Bill aims to ease financial burden of students

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A new bill is currently being reviewed by Congress that would, if passed, help low and middle income students receive more money to attend college.

The College Access and Opportunity Act, which is the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, lists a number of reforms to improve tuition costs, expand the use of technology in education and provide access and information to students.

If Congress passes the bill, larger Pell Grants will be offered to students.

According to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce website, colleges would raise the maximum amount of Pell Grants to $5,800 per year per student. Current federal law limits the amount of money low-cost schools can distribute.

Tom Kiley, press secretary for Congressmember George Miller (D-San Francisco/East Bay), said that proposing a $5,800 increase until 2013 is not enough.

“There’s an issue with the Pell Grants,” Miller said. “We’d like them to reflect reality.”

Alexa Marrero, press secretary for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, who is in favor of the grant increase, said the money will help students.

Martin Saiz, CSUN political science professor, said the Pell Grants affect students the most.

“An increase is a good thing, but the advantage depends on how much the increase is,” Saiz said. “Students will need the money.”

The act will redistribute federal aid offered at high-cost universities and place it among low-cost institutions.

Kiley said this type of change is not beneficial to students.

“The real issue is trying to keep tuition in check, and to keep costs from rising,” Kiley said. “You can’t take money away from one student just because of a formula change.”

Saiz said, however, that in some instances, higher costs might be justified.

“If it’s a tried-true method of purchasing a quality education, then that might be a justification of those high costs,” Saiz said.

One way students cut costs is through distance learning, also known as online learning. The current “50 percent rule” limits the number of students who can take online courses. The act will eliminate this rule and let schools expand their use of online courses.

“The 50 percent rule limits the number of students that can be offered that opportunity (to take online courses),” Marrero said. “The goal is to give students the options that fit them best.”

However, Saiz said he is concerned about not keeping up traditional teaching methods.

“I think you lose quality when you choose online courses,” Saiz said. “There’s no face-to-face communication.”

Kiley said the increase of online courses is dangerous if it is designed for colleges and universities to make a profit.

“You want to show there’s real substance to a school,” Kiley said. “The bigger issue is you don’t want to have schools get into this just to turn a profit.”

For graduate students, the interest rate on consolidated loans is currently at a fixed rate. The act would change the interest to a variable rate, which Marrero said is a good step in helping borrowers switch from the 3.37 percent that students are currently paying.

“The idea is (that) first priority should be placed among current and future students, and fixed rates are increasing in cost,” Marrero said. “That may limit the chance (for Congress) to expand access for students.”

According to the committee website, loan limits for first-year and second-year students will increase, while the total borrowing limit will stay at $23,000. First-year student limits will increase from $2,625 to $3,500. Second-year student limits will increase from $3,500 to $4,500.

The act would benefit students who are on the borderline to be eligible to receive financial aid and need rates that are as low as possible, Saiz said.

In addition, the bill will require colleges to make consumer reports available to the public.

Marrero said the focus is on prioritizing the needs of students.

“The focus is on college access,” Marrero said. “That’s what higher education was established for, so that first priority is on the students.”