Republicans target college student aid
In this Oct. 6, 2011 photo, Gan Golan, of Los Angeles, dressed as the “Master of Degrees,” holds a ball and chain representing his college loan debt. | Jacquelyn Martin / AP

WASHINGTON (PAI)—Not content with destroying Democratic President Barack Obama’s health care law—for partisan reasons—the radical right-wingers of the GOP-dominated House Education and the Workforce Committee have set out to trash one of the cornerstones of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society—college student aid.

Under the guise of streamlining the aid process and reducing paperwork, the committee, by a party-line vote just before Congress quit at the end of last year, approved HR4508, a complete rewrite of the 1965 Higher Education Act. More than 50 percent of all college students get some form of aid, including loans and grants.

Overriding committee Democrats, the American Federation of Teachers and the United Auto Workers and even experts in college aid—such as UCLA’s financial aid administrator—they reduced key loan programs and deleted a loan forgiveness plan for graduates who enter public service. They also made it clear they want banks to handle, and milk, student aid again.

To drive their point home, the GOP majority beat back all Democratic amendments on party-line votes. Then they turned around and made it easier for for-profit institutions to get federal dollars to “educate” their students, with no accountability for if they actually do so.

Whether the committee’s scheme will go anywhere is another matter. It has yet to hit the House floor and the Senate GOP-run committee that handles education issues hasn’t even held hearings on higher education yet.

Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., naturally crowed about HR4508, while claiming LBJ’s law is outdated and doesn’t work.

“The numbers do not lie: The tangled web of aid programs in existence today produced more debt than success,” Foxx claimed. “We can cut through the clutter and confusion students face…by presenting one grant, one loan, and one work-study program. Similarly, paring down the maze of loan repayment options to a standard 10-year repayment plan and an income-based repayment plan will let students come up with a plan for paying down their debt they know they can actually stick to.”

AFT, UAW, and the committee Democrats sharply disagreed with their scheme.

“An equity-busting markup of the Higher Education Act is making its way through Congress,” the Teachers said. Other education unions, including the National Education Association and the School Administrators—who represent elementary and secondary school leaders—have yet to weigh in. The United States Student Association has so far been silent.

“If rogue for-profit colleges and private lenders were to dream up a higher education bill that lines their own pockets at the expense of working- and middle-class students, this would be it,” AFT President Randi Weingarten and United University Professions President Fred Kowal wrote. UUP represents the faculty and staff at the State University of New York system.

“The bill cuts off equitable access to 4-year college degrees. It takes a scythe to income-based repayment programs and loan forgiveness for borrowers who serve the public. It trashes basic protections for students, such as the 90/10 rule, which caps the amount for-profit colleges can get from federal financial aid sources, and the gainful employment rule, which requires colleges to produce students who are gainfully employed after graduation,” they said.

The two union leaders pointed out HR4508 would affect millions of students and their families, by: Putting absolute dollar limits on federal aid per student, eliminating a $600 million college teacher training program, and banning federal forgiveness of student loans—even in cases where the for-profit college went belly-up.

HR4508 would also hold historically black colleges and universities to tougher graduation standards despite the often poor backgrounds of their students, Weingarten and Kowal said. And if states try to go after banks who prey on student loan borrowers, the GOP measure cuts them off from protecting the students, the two say.

Students and colleges “face growing challenges that must not be ignored by policymakers,” said the Auto Workers, whose union was just formally certified to represent 3,000 Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants at Columbia University.

“Budget cuts, skyrocketing tuition, increasing student loan debt, and a squeeze on academic workers by school administrations threaten the quality and accessibility of higher education, as well as the success of the academic research enterprise. A 4-year degree, associate’s degree, or vocational certificate is out of reach for many working families. Increased funding of education, including vocational education partnerships with community colleges as well as apprenticeship programs, is critical for our future.”

The committee’s Democrats were similarly caustic. All their amendments, including one to keep present loan programs and others to both enact the Dream Act and make the Dreamers eligible for federal student aid, lost on partisan votes.

“Just like the Republican tax plan, it puts corporate profits before students, asking families and students to pay more for a lower quality education,” they said in a statement.

HR4508 “chooses clear winners and losers,” added Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the panel’s top Democrat. “Under this bill, corporate interests are put first and students are put last. Put simply, while not everyone will choose a 4-year degree, every student must have the opportunity, regardless of income, to make that choice.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.