Finally Congress and President George W. Bush have done something we can get behind. Last week President Bush signed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act into law. It is the largest investment in financial aid by the government since the G.I. Bill during World War II, and after college costs rising 35 percent over the past five years, it is a welcome change.
The law will gradually raise the maximum Pell grant award from $4,050 today to $11,600 by 2012. Pell grants do not have to be repaid to the government. It will cut the interest rates on Stafford and other federally backed loans in half to 3.4 percent over that same time frame. The law also establishes a path to $5,000 of loan forgiveness over five years for those serving in areas of national need such as nurses, early childhood educators, highly qualified teachers in low-income schools, public sector employees and those in national service. This will help students more easily afford college.
Perhaps the best part of this initiative is that it will come at no additional cost to the taxpayer. Instead it will be paid for by reducing the subsidies to student loan companies. And while I certainly would have liked this to happen a few years ago so that I could have been borrowing at 3.4 percent instead of 6.8 percent, this act will certainly benefit my brothers and many others who will attend college in the near future.
While the government should still do more to help students afford college, this influx of financial aid should allow colleges to bring on more people from lower socioeconomic levels. A recent New York Times piece entitled “The New College Try” cited a study that said just 10 percent of students at 146 selective colleges and universities come from the bottom half of the socioeconomic scale, which is based on parental income, education and occupation. And here at GW, while there are certainly exceptions, most students are not hurting for money. Such a gap across the nation should not be viewed as acceptable in the U.S. We cannot just leave behind such a large segment of the population.
High school students from this segment of the population face many challenges. There are many more obstacles in the way of that student’s success than there are in the way of a student at a preparatory school or an elite public school in suburbia. Colleges can help this problem by giving more weight to the application of a student from a low-income area. Colleges and the government should also continue to find ways to help these students afford college.
Hard work is still the key in America, and I’m not saying that your position in society should be the sole factor in a college’s decision to admit you or give you money. Yet it is difficult to deny that a student from the lower portion of the socioeconomic scale will have to work harder to achieve the same grades as someone who was born into an easier life. And that is before they even worry about paying for school.
Colleges can also help to foster a higher graduation rate, and thus more applicants from poorer areas (for example Camden, N.J., where less than half graduate high school) by developing programs that instill the importance of education in children, and help parents encourage academic development throughout their time in school. The parents of a child do not need to be college graduates themselves in order to see the importance of an education. Neither of my parents have a college degree, but their insistence on me having a good education is what got me here.
The financial help is finally starting to come around to match the costs of attending college, although it still has a ways to go. This new law should help more students afford college. At the same time it is now on colleges to work to bring more people to the college level so that colleges can continue to help people move up the social ladder, and not just maintain a status quo.
The writer is a junior majoring in international affairs with a concentration in conflict and security.