Keep higher education affordable

Federal cuts to student aid, coupled with rising tuition costs, risk putting higher education out of reach for many students unless members of Congress reverse the trend, the National Education Association testified today before the Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

"We need to make sure that opportunities for higher education are available to all students," said MTA President Catherine A. Boudreau. "That includes students of color, first-generation college students, and working parents. If we are not willing to keep college affordable for everyone, then students, the economy and society as a whole will suffer in the future."

Boudreau testified before the commission in Boston, as part of a national dialogue initiated by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on the future of higher education. The 19-member commission is made up of university presidents, CEOs, policymakers, and researchers. Members have until August to produce a report on the state of higher education in terms of access, accountability, affordability and quality.

In December, Congress slashed college student aid by $12.7 billion over the next five years, making it more expensive for students to borrow for college. The cuts, combined with inflation and other factors driving tuition and fees ever higher, threaten to put college education out of reach for millions of students, NEA said.

"The United States has historically treated higher education as a gateway to better jobs, better lives and a better democracy," said Reg Weaver, president of NEA, which represents over 125,000 higher education faculty, non-instructional staff, and education support professionals. "But if lawmakers keep putting up more and more roadblocks to higher education, only the wealthiest students will be able to attend college. At that point, higher education will contribute to the growing inequality of economic opportunity, not reduce it."

One important financial aid resource for the poorest students has been the Pell Grant program. When the program was created, though, the maximum grant covered 84 percent of the cost of a public four-year college.  Today, it covers only 39 percent. 

The president's budget for FY07 freezes the Pell Grant maximum at the current $4,050 level for the fifth year in a row. The budget also makes the largest dollar cut to federal education funding in the history of the Education Department.

"Students are already coming out of college with massive debt, and this budget will keep piling it on them," said Kathy Sproles, president of the National Council for Higher Education. "Lawmakers give stump speeches about the importance of higher education for self improvement, career development and the economy, but they aren't following through on those promises. Congress must not cut the few financial aid resources available to students who have the drive and skills to go to college, but not the cash."