As college students are coming back to their campuses for the spring semester, many of us are noticing that far too many of our peers' desks are empty. Their families can no longer afford to pay for college or loans are not available. The recession is forcing many colleges and universities to dramatically raise the cost of tuition in order to cover budget shortfalls while the credit crunch is making it nearly impossible for many students to obtain academic loans at a reasonable rate. Students who need to work part-time jobs on the side to afford college are now being laid-off as companies continue to make cutbacks. To add insult to injury, recent college graduates who are hoping to pay off their loans beginning within six months of graduation find an unwelcoming job market.
I myself was forced to make a hard decision this year, when my family was pressed for money with two of us in college and one more to soon join us. I tell my story in this video:
The passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is a step in the right direction for the millions of American students and families currently struggling to make ends meet. The act, H.R. 598, created a new American Opportunity Tax Credit of up to $2,500 of the cost of college tuition and related expenses each taxable year, and expanded the Pell Grant program by $15.6 billion - raising the maximum Pell Grant award by $500 from $4,850 to $5,350. When combined, these two provisions provide up to $3,000 of direct relief - making affording college more realistic.
Additionally, President Obama's recently approved 2010 fiscal year budget makes permanent the American Opportunity Tax credit in addition to a new five-year, $2.5 billion Access and Completion Incentive Fund to support innovative state efforts to help low-income students succeed and complete their college education.
But as the economy continues to struggle, more needs to be done. Our state and local governments are facing the brunt of this recession and we can't afford to let our public colleges and universities suffer because of it. Eighty percent of college students in America attend public colleges and universities - institutions which receive the bulk of their funding from state governments. Traditionally, in times of economic hardship, institutions of higher education are the first to experience budget cuts; cutting away at many young American's dreams as the result is an increase in tuition. Given the challenges facing higher education right now, we cannot afford to go down that path again. Providing federal assistance to state governments will prevent tuition increases and allow for four-fifths of our nation's students to take their seats behind their desks.
You do not need a college graduate to tell you that the education of our citizenry is vital to the long-term health of our economy. Tomorrow's engineers, innovators and policymakers are today's college students. If Congress doesn't act to assist our students and support our state governments, then students like me will continue to be forced to cheat their college experience and one-by-one, the desks in America's institutions of higher education will forcibly be abandoned, by eager young minds of today and tomorrow.