October 16, 2008

TACKLING THE COST OF HIGHER EDUCATION

By Senator Mike Crapo

Since 1997, tuition and fees at public four year institutions have increased by an average of 4.4 percent annually. Similarly, tuition and fees for private four year institutions increased by an average of 2.9 percent annually. The amount students and families paid for college after grant aid and tax benefits-net price-fell between 1997 and 2001, but has risen rapidly ever since. Between 1992 and 2003, the net price of both public and private four year institutions as a percentage of family income, rose for lower-middle-income students. In these challenging economic times, American students must be given every opportunity to have access to a superior education. This summer, Congress did its part by reauthorizing the 1965 law that established a firm federal role in higher education.

Last authorized a decade ago, the Higher Education Opportunity Act was passed by Congress and signed by the President this summer. I voted in favor of this comprehensive legislation that will better target federal education assistance to provide greater access to more students, improve opportunities for instructional and institutional excellence, and target groups needing special assistance such as our military and those with special needs.

The law covers federal student aid, graduate and postsecondary programs and international education programs. There are provisions requiring the Secretary of Education to improve the usefulness and accessibility of college planning and financial aid information. In particular, the Department of Education will launch an annually-updated "institution pricing summary" page at the College Navigator website that will contain data on tuition, fees and net prices.
Military families will benefit from changes in the law including a provision that requires states to offer in-state tuition to military members and dependents if they are stationed in that state. The legislation also authorizes the Department of Education to award competitive grants to colleges and universities to develop programs to support the academic, financial, physical and social needs of students who are veterans. Incidentally, the University of Idaho has been a national leader in meeting these needs prior to the reauthorization of this legislation.
Federal loan and grant limits were increased. The maximum Pell Grant for Academic Year (AY) 2009-2010 is $6,000, and will increase annually to $8,000 for AY 2014-2015. Annual borrowing limits on Perkins Loans are $5,500 for undergraduate students and $8,000 for graduate and professional students.
Policy makers have heard family concerns about the federal student aid formula and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form itself. They've been streamlined and simplified with two noteworthy provisions: Now, financial aid administrators may adjust need based on nursing home expenses, adult dependent care, or because of a family member who is a dislocated worker, and financial aid administrators may award unsubsidized Stafford loans to students whose parents have ended financial support and refuse to complete the FAFSA.
The legislation includes new initiatives like a math and science scholars program and grants to expand nursing programs and establish or strengthen programs related to American history and civics. I'm encouraged by these programs, especially in math and science. In 2004, I established the Crapo Math and Science Scholarship Fund and, this year, I awarded the first scholarship from that fund. Targeting specific federal dollars in this manner expands opportunities for students to pursue careers in critical fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Leading the world requires that we provide opportunities for our citizens to have the best education in the world. The keys to accessing this education include affordability, choice and institutional excellence. The Higher Education Opportunity Act will help put federal resources where they are most needed to maximize American achievement in education.
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