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Enzi: Congress Must Help Bring Costs of College Down

College costs continue to rise. Last year, in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions increased 6.5 percent, and they have increased an astounding 77 percent since 1995. The increase in the cost of higher education is nearly triple the rate of inflation over the same period of time. Simply stated, college costs are rising at an unsustainable rate.

[IMGCAP(1)]The Obama administration’s answer to rising college costs has been to promise students a dramatically increased Pell Grant. This is a promise that is quickly proving to be hollow because there is simply not enough money to maintain the current Pell Grant award level.

Last year, Congress provided more than $33 billion to increase the maximum Pell Grant award to $4,860 per student. However, the underlying problem is still not addressed as student aid levels appear to have little to do with actual costs.

Thirty years ago, a Pell Grant could cover almost 80 percent of a public college’s costs, but now it covers 30 percent. More than 70 percent of college students graduate with an average debt of $23,000.

While financial aid has increased, more and more students have become eligible for the Pell Grant. As of November 2009, Pell applications were up almost 18 percent from the previous year. Consequently, maintaining the individual award amounts at current funding levels has proved unsustainable, and the administration has been forced to find an additional $19 billion for the coming year. The numbers just don’t match up. It’s not even close.

In response to this problem, the majority in Congress recently passed legislation that killed the primary source of government-backed student loans, a successful public-private partnership over the past 45 years called the Federal Family Education Loan program. The FFEL program, or as I like to call it, the “Family-Friendly Education Loan” program, allowed private lenders to provide capital with a federal guarantee against defaults from lenders. The program was the preferred choice of students and colleges and universities, but the administration replaced a family-friendly approach offering multiple lending options with yet another federal government monopoly. Students seeking financial aid will no longer have the opportunity to take advantage of private lending services with a government guarantee that made them affordable.

One of the biggest broken promises of this Congress is the false assurance of addressing the skyrocketing cost of higher education. In reality, Pell Grants will not be increased a substantial amount. The shortfall between what students are eligible to receive and the actual funding provided is so serious that families might see only an additional $50 available per year in award money, hardly assistance that could actually make a difference. Everyone isn’t eligible for Pell Grants anyway.

Sadly, even if Congress finds the additional $5.5 billion to fill the remaining shortfall, far more will be needed to keep pace next year and beyond. If a $4,860 base award is to be maintained, Congress will need to spend roughly $31 billion per year. It doesn’t take an accountant to tell you that this all boils down to ever-increasing costs and still won’t fulfill the promises made to students and their families.

To this point, Congress has done nothing to address the real problem, which is the runaway cost of college education. We must offer real solutions, not just make hollow promises that require us to spend more and more money. After all the talk of increasing access to higher education, there is a tremendous shortfall in Pell Grant funding and the hollow promise to students gets more expensive every year.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) is the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

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