By Melissa BirdRepresentative Nick Lampson, of the 22nd district, held a town meeting on campus Aug. 30 to discuss new legislation that will help cut college costs.
The legislation, the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007, was first introduced in June of this year and will be "the largest investment in higher education since the GI Bill in 1944." It was passed by the House of Representatives on July 11, 2007 in a 273-149 majority vote. This large margin was not surprising considering that since January of this year the House has been putting legislation in place to advocate for higher education.
The Senate received the bill and passed an edited version of it on July 20, 2007. The next step for all members of Congress is to meet in conference and discuss the changes made to the bill, then send it on to the president for approval.
"College is the best investment that our nation can make in its future," Lampson said.
Outlined in the bill are the changes to the Pell Grant, which will increase by $500 over the next five years. Since the 2003 deregulation of tuition in Texas, the cost for an average student has gone up 41 percent and an extra $500 could mean a lot to students who are just making ends meet.
"That $500 could mean the difference between someone being full time or part time and allow that student to get through an educational program in a reasonable amount of time," said Maureen Murphy, president of San Jacinto College South Campus.
One interesting section regarding student loans is a forgiveness clause for service workers and first responders in low income communities. This means graduates who go into various fields of study, such as childhood education, nursing, law enforcement, prosecution, and medicine would have up to $1,000 forgiven yearly for five years on the repayment of their student loans.
"Particularly, we need teachers and people in special areas that the College Cost Reduction Act addresses," Lampson said. "Jobs that we don't easily get people to go into."
The legislation will cut percentage rates on student loans in half. Currently the standard interest rate is 6.8 percent, but by July of 2012, the rate will be reduced to 3.4 percent. To give some perspective of the significance of this, Lynda McKendree, the executive director for the office of student financial aid at UHCL, was also asked to speak at the town meeting.
McKendree presented a hypothetical independent undergraduate student who borrowed the maximum amount on a Stafford loan and calculated the difference between what he would owe under the current rate and under the College Cost Reduction Act. She found that a student who borrowed $21,000 total would pay $29,000 back including interest at 6.8 percent and only $24,800 including interest at 3.4 percent.
Lampson, a former high school science teacher, also stressed the need for more emphasis on early development of an interest in education, especially in the areas of math and science.
"I think we are doing a great deal of harm to our nation by not encouraging our students to study in math and science and technological-related areas of education and when we are doing things that can make it easier to gain access, I think we are doing good," Lampson said.
Some communities have already started to help students "gain access" to education. Galveston Community College has a program called Universal Access, in which a student who qualifies for financial need and attends at least two classes in the spring or fall and one class in the summer will have their tuition paid. This is just one example of community effort to make education more accessible to more people, which is just what many educators would like to see in the future.
"When I graduated from college you could make a family living wage with a high school degree and there were many opportunities out there, but now in our high technological based economy, secondary education is no longer optional, but necessary for the economic success of all of us," Murphy said.
Students and faculty, as well as visitors from other schools, attended the meeting and many asked the congressman questions directly. One of those people was professor of management Joyce Supina who said that she felt very gratified to know that people are willing to gather to speak about important issues.
"It's all about raising awareness," Lampson said. "To let people know what Congress is doing to entice students to stay in college to get as much education as they possibly can."