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Pell Grants also need big boost

by Kim Mazzuca

The House of Representatives on Wednesday, January 17 approved legislation that provides a 50 percent reduction in interest on student loans.

This sounds like good news. But many educational advocates, including myself, believe that this money would have a greater impact on making higher education attainable – and would do more to narrow the gap in college enrollment between low-income students and their more affluent counterparts – if the same money was used instead to increase the amount available for Pell Grants.

Because Pell Grants help low-income students, while a reduction in the interest rate of student loans will help more affluent students. House leaders have spoken of their desire to do both, but they are placing student loans ahead of Pell Grants. In fact, Congress has failed to increase spending on the Pell Grant for that past five years, which is seemingly about to become six. Given the limited funds available to Congress right now because of competing demands, including the war in Iraq, an increase in Pell Grants may never be feasible with the passing of this bill.

Student loans come with the obvious caveat that they need to be repaid. Reducing interest rates will reduce the average student's total loan payments for four years of college by $4,400, but still leave them on the hook for $13,800, a debt so large in the eyes of many low-income students that many assume college simply isn't an option.

Pell Grants, instead, are a type of need-based scholarship. They give students who may not believe that they have a chance at college, students who are often disproportionately students of color, and who are often the first in their families to attend college, the true financial support they need to attend college and build better lives.

Let me be clear that I am for reducing interest rates for federal student loans. In fact, I strongly opposed the congressional bill last year that slashed $12 billion from federal student-loan programs and raised interest rates on student loans. It is simply a question of priorities. With limited financial resources, Congress is putting the wrong priorities first.

Congress had an historic opportunity to significantly expand Pell Grants for low-income students for the first time in more than 25 years. Last year, the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid Assistance estimated that as many as 170,000 college-eligible high school graduates will not go on to college because of cost issues. Investing more in Pell Grants could make college a reality for tens of thousands of bright, college-qualified, low-income students who don't even bother to apply now because they don't think they will be able to afford it.

The current trends in public financing of higher education are resulting in class-based opportunities to access higher education. The federal government has focused on loans and tax credits over grants in aiding students who have the dream of going to college. This results in policy that favors more affluent students over lower-income students, and the gap between rich and poor in educational attainment is likely to keep growing unless we change policy.

As the president of Marin Education Fund, I have witnessed the power a scholarship can make for a student in need and for our county. More than 15,000 students have gone to college because of the generosity of our donors. These students now share that gift with others by serving as doctors, teachers and leaders.

If you share the conviction that everyone should have a chance at college, let us create the public policies that extend the greatest breadth of opportunities for the people who need them most.