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Better Late Than Never: Congress Addresses the College Affordability Crisis

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These are exciting times for America's students. After years of neglecting the college (un)affordability crisis, Congress is making the issue a priority.

The House Education and Labor Committee unanimously backed a five-year reauthorization of the Higher Education Act Thursday when it approved the College Opportunity and Affordability Act (H.R. 4137) by a margin of 44 to 0. The bill, which boosts student aid and helps families compare tuition costs at different colleges, comes less than two months after Congress passed legislation cutting subsidies to lenders and shifting the money to aid for students, increasing grants for low-income students and cutting interest rates on federal student loans.

Yesterday's bill, which will likely go the full House after Thanksgiving and contains similar provisions as the Senate's version which passed by 95-0 in July, would raise the maximum Pell grant for low-income students to $9,000 per year, from $5,800, and would allow the grants to be used year-round. The measure also sets high spending ceilings for many college programs, creates some important new ones and simplifies the student aid application and delivery process. These are all tasks that are long overdue and which college officials overwhelmingly support.

But the bill has a number of provisions that college officials are not so fond of. For example, the legislation calls for the creation of a "higher education price index" that would allow parents and students to compare tuition increases over time at various colleges and universities. Schools that significantly raise tuition would be placed on a government "watch list."

University lobbyists call this an unnecessary and potentially harmful federal intrusion into higher education. Richard Doherty of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachussets insists, "The notion that there are efficiencies that colleges are not trying to pursue currently is just a fallacy." This assertion seems hard to defend as universities spend millions upon millions of dollars on state-of-the-art athletic facilities and dining halls to climb the rankings and impress helicopter parents. Worse still, the money that universities reserve for financial aid to defray the burden of soaring tuition often does not end up in the hands of the students who need it most as colleges dish out merit aid to woo wealthy applicants with high SAT scores and potential donor parents. For-profit schools have tried out cost-cutting methods like teaching full courses of study online and renting out university buildings to the community, but the savings from such practices go to boosting the bottom line. Until independent colleges test these and other models, Congress should continue to pressure them to limit the skyrocketing price of tuition.

The College Opportunity and Affordability Act is far from perfect, but it takes steps in the right direction by acknowledging the reality that making college affordable requires action at the federal level (e.g. the Pell grant increase and interest rate reduction) the state level (e.g. the punishment for state governments that cut their higher education budgets) and most importantly the private sector (e.g. the additional grant money to colleges that restrain their tuition growth and the ban on student loan lenders from giving schools financial aid funds or any other perks to get on a "preferred lender" list). The work is far from over, but nine years after the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 1998, it seems like Congress is finally making progress toward making college more affordable.