WASHINGTON -- More needy college students will have access to bigger Pell Grants, and future borrowers of government loans will have an easier time repaying them, under a vast overhaul of higher education aid that Congress passed Thursday and sent to President Barack Obama.
The legislation, an Obama domestic priority overshadowed by his health care victory, represents the most sweeping rewrite of college assistance programs in four decades. It strips banks of their role as middlemen in federal student loans and puts the government in charge.
The House passed the measure 220-207 as part of an expedited bill that also fixed provisions in the new health care law. Earlier Thursday, the Senate passed the bill 56-43.
The switch to direct government loans will result in savings to boost Pell Grants and make it easier for some workers to repay their student loans. In addition, some borrowers could see lower interest rates and higher approval rates on student loans.
The legislation has a wide reach. About half of undergraduates receive federal student aid and about 8.5 million students are going to college with the help of Pell Grants.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, praised the bill as a victory for middle-class families.
"Now they'll have the assurance that their kids will be able to afford to go to college and again, when they get out, they won't be burdened with a huge debt," Harkin said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) wasn't as pleased. The New York Times reports:
"The Democratic majority decided, well look, while we're at it, let's have another Washington takeover," said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and a former federal education secretary. "Let's take over the federal student loan program."
The changes do not go as far as Obama and House Democrats wanted. That is because ending fees for private lenders would save less money than they anticipated, according to budget scorekeepers. The bill is now expected to save $61 billion over 10 years.
According to The New York Times, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that about $40 billion of the savings will go toward higher education. The Times also reports that education programs will get more money -- $10 billion -- from the health care overhaul.
Because the changes don't go as far as some had hoped, the Pell Grant increase is modest and doesn't keep up with rising tuition costs. Advocates wanted more.
"The increases in the Pell Grant are better than nothing, but they are still quite anemic," said analyst Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the student assistance Web site FinAid.org.
When Pell Grants were created in 1972, the maximum grant covered nearly three-quarters of the average cost of attending a public four-year college. In 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, the maximum grant covered about a third of the cost. And debt affects the careers graduates choose.
"We're seeing students being squeezed out of socially valuable jobs like teaching and social work" because of their debts, said Rich Williams, who has worked on the bill for the Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization.
Private lenders still will make student loans that are not backed by the government, and they still will have contracts to service some federal loans. But the change represents a significant loss to what has been a $70 billion business for the industry.
Key features of the measure include:
_Pell Grants would rise from $5,550 for the coming school year to $5,975 by 2017. Lawmakers had initially hoped to reach a $6,900 cap.
_More eligible students could get a full Pell Grant. Most grants go to students with family income below $20,000, but students with family income of up to $50,000 may also be eligible.
_Some college graduates will have an easier time repaying loans. The government will essentially guarantee that workers in low-paying jobs will be able to reduce their payments. Current law caps monthly payments at 15 percent of these workers' incomes; the new law will lower the cap to 10 percent.
Savings from the measure will also go toward reducing the deficit and helping to pay for expanded health care.
The loan program caused a hitch in Democrats' plan to send the health care fixes promptly to President Obama.
Republicans forced the Senate to make a slight change to the Pell Grant portion of the bill, which required the bill to return to the House for a final vote.