Phillip Ensler: Legislative success for students

Last month a frenzy around the nation’s capital – and throughout the country, for that matter – centered on the House of Representatives’ passage of a health care reform bill. But a major component of that bill has not been given sufficient attention. When Congress passed the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act last month, it not only reformed our health care system, but also changed the student loans process to give students greater financial assistance and better terms on their loans. The change in policy is a victory for students, their families and higher education and should be applauded as such.

The legislation ends the practice of the federal government showering private student lenders with billions of dollars in subsidies, and instead makes the government a direct lender of loans. This allows students to take out loans directly from the government instead of private lenders. The change in lending practices will result in the government saving $61 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Many of the savings will then be redirected into larger Pell Grants, which help students cover some of their tuition costs.

Moreover, once students graduate and start working, the bill lowers the current cap for monthly federal student loan repayments, from 15 percent of an individual’s income to 10 percent. Even better, loan forgiveness will begin after 20 years, instead of the current 25. For those who enter public service – as many GW graduates do – forgiveness could start after 10 years of employment, according to the Committee on Education and Labor’s website. In other words, the bill does a lot of good for students by easing the burden of debt they face after graduation; they will keep more money in their pockets and be relieved of some of the money they owe after a shorter period of time.

The direct lending program, which requires the participation of college financial aid offices, offers many advantages to students. The Education Department has implemented a streamlined, computerized system for originating and handling the loans, making it easier on students and their families. Borrowers would not be subject to the perils of a frozen credit market created by bad economic times and the often exploitative practices of private lenders. Most importantly, unlike a number of GW students who had their loans abruptly severed by lenders in past years (“Lender drops students mid-year,” Oct. 2008), the government will not drop students from its program.

Knowing that the bill does all these good things, you probably are feeling good about what Congress accomplished and are proud to know that our beloved legislators in Washington got something right. Unfortunately, this positive piece of legislation was not the work of bipartisanship, as Republicans in both the House and Senate unanimously opposed it.

Considering the rancorous approach and obsessive tenor the political right has taken in calling for cuts in government spending, you would think it would have led the charge in passing this bill. Surely, based on the Republican Party’s proclaimed principles of fiscal austerity and self-responsibility, it would have supported legislation that ended enormous government subsidies and simultaneously makes a college education – the supposed gateway to self-sufficiency – more affordable. Additionally, because Republicans have held the blowhorn in calling for policies that are deficit-neutral, they surely would have backed a bill that identified savings in one area and then funneled that money into a worthy cause.

The game of politics and ideological differences are lynchpins of Washington. Naturally, legislators will pick sides on issues and capitalize on every opportunity to cast the other party in an unfavorable light. But college affordability is not an issue that should be subject to the petty games of politicians and, sadly, opposition by an entire party. Let’s hope the Republicans get it right next time and vote for what’s in the best interest of students. We are, after all, the future of our country.

The writer, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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