By Pedro de la Torre
Congress is facing a stark choice this month between doing the right thing and bowing to special interests.
In May, President Obama proposed a major reform that would cut wasteful subsidies to student loan companies by eliminating the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) and originating all future loans through the already operating Direct Loan Program. This plan would create $87 billion in savings over ten years, which would be reinvested in grants for low and middle income students. The plan would also help millions of young people benefit from higher education by investing in community colleges and minority serving institutions and creating state/federal partnerships for college access and completion.
Last month, the House, by a large margin, passed a bill, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), in line with the President's proposal. However, the vote in the Senate is expected to be much closer and more contentious.
So, if the proposed bill would help make college more affordable without costing taxpayers an additional penny, why would a vote in favor of it be controversial? It's certainly not because people don't recognize that there's a problem. We've seen the numbers over and over:
•The average student debt level is now $22,700
•Families earning less than $40,000 have an average unmet need (aka, the amount students still owe in college costs after taking into account all grants, loans, and the expected family contribution) of $5,622 to $7,204
•Pell Grants, federal grants for students with the most financial need, covered 72 percent of the cost of attending a public four year college in 1976, but only 32 percent of this cost in 2008.
•The US is falling behind in education relative to other countries: Americans ages 35-54 rank second worldwide in percentage of college graduates, but those ages 25-34 now rank 10th.
It shouldn't simply be about political ideology: Both conservatives and progressives alike agree that we should stop waste in government programs, and by doing away with the FFELP, the proposed legislation would do just that. There has already been conservative support for the bill; Rep. Tom Petri from Wisconsin and former Senator Dave Durenberger from Minnesota (who, by the way, recently wrote a great op-ed with Sen. Franken on this issue), both back the President's proposal.
No, the ugly truth is that this bill is controversial because special interests stand to lose an easy and reliable source of federal largess, and they are willing to spend millions on lobbying and campaign contributions to protect their privileged access to the federal checkbook--students be damned. Sallie Mae, one of the largest of the student loan companies, has already spent millions lobbying against reform this year, according to Opensecrets.org.
If young people hope to see real reform come out of the Senate, they need to raise some hell, which is exactly why groups like Campus Progress, the US Students Association, and the Student PIRGS worked together to organize the Raising Pell Week of Action (10/5-9).
This week, on campus and online, young people are tweeting, calling, and faxing their Senators to urge them to support cutting wasteful subsidies to student loan companies, and to invest at least $40 billion in the Pell grant program.
Tuesday was the social media action day, and we created a nifty new tool to help make tweeting your Senators directly an easy process. Twitter is already full of messages from across the country, and they are continuing to come in.
Today (Wednesday), the Senate will be receiving thousands of calls from students supporting reform, and they should also go ahead and dust off their old fax machines...we'll be going "old school" and bombarding their offices with those on Thursday.
To learn more about the Raising Pell campaign and get involved, check out http://campusprogress.org/ raisingpell