Congress came one step closer Wednesday to making the largest cuts ever to federal student aid programs, despite fierce opposition from Democratic lawmakers.
The House Education and Workforce Committee voted 22-19 along party lines to approve a measure that would take roughly $14.5 billion from student aid programs as part of the committee’s budget reconciliation plan. The bill will go to the House floor for a full vote in the next few weeks.
Part of an effort to cut $50 billion from the total congressional budget, the plan would extract savings from aid programs largely by raising taxes placed on banks that offer student loans.
The bill requires lenders to pay a 1 percent insurance charge and doubles the current tax on student loans from 1.5 percent to 3 percent. Critics say the fees will inevitably be passed down to students, forcing the average student to pay roughly $5,800 more out of their own pockets.
The bill exposed a divide between the two parties over how to manage the country’s system for improving access to higher education. Republicans said the proposals would make aid programs more efficient and reduce waste, while Democrats blasted the measure as an attack on federal student assistance.
“You can dress this proposal any way you want to, and you can describe it any way you want to, but at the end of the day, what you will have is a $15 billion cut in student aid accounts of this government,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the committee’s senior Democratic member. “And that money, once it leaves this account, it’s hard to see how it will ever come back.”
Miller was one of five Democrats that offered amendments to various aspects of the Republican-backed bill, all of which failed. The legislation provoked heated responses from several lawmakers, a number of whom chastised the measure for restricting access to higher education when the country’s workforce is struggling to keep pace with other nations.
“We are facing an unprecedented challenge from other countries and other strong economies around the world,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “If we don’t do everything we can to invest in our young people’s education, we are not only going to shortchange them, we’re going to shortchange the United States of America.”
Republicans countered that their bill will benefit – not hinder – federal student aid, pointing out that the plan in fact raises the maximum federal loans for students in their first two years. Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, said changes that were made are necessary to make the system fiscally sound.
“These same students that we’re helping to get in school and through school, at the end of the day, they pay taxes and are going to pay taxes,” said Boehner. “And they’re going to be paying much higher taxes if we don’t get serious about getting the budget under control.”
The proposed cuts sounded an alarm for student activist groups. Donning t-shirts with the slogan “Stop the Raid on Student Aid,” twelve students from Georgetown University, the University of Maryland-College Park and other schools stood towards the back of the room in silent protest of the measure.
“I want to make sure other students from my background have a chance to go to college,” said Sharon Hyke, a senior at the University of Northern Iowa who came to the hearing. “If you’re working class, and you don’t have these grants, you’re just going to fall through the cracks.”
Though they expressed confidence the student aid cuts will be voted down when the full reconciliation bill reaches the House floor, activists said that the proposals should serve as a warning to college students that their federal aid dollars are vulnerable.
“We’re trying to raise as much awareness about the higher education issues as we can,” said Jasmine Harris, legislative director for the United States Student Association, an activist group. “A lot of times it’s hard to get people to pay attention until something like this comes up.”