Correction to This Article
The article misstated the year President Obama has said he wants the United States to lead the world in the proportion of college graduates. The year is 2020.

Proposals Would Transform College Aid

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009

President Obama's health-care goals may be garnering attention, but his higher-education proposals are no less ambitious.

If adopted, they could transform the financial aid landscape for millions of students while expanding federal authority to a degree that even Democrats concede is controversial.

At stake is a plan to expand the Pell Grant program, making it an entitlement akin to Medicare and Social Security. Key to the effort is a consolidation of student lending that would give the U.S. Department of Education a near monopoly over the practice -- a proposal that has mobilized the private loan industry, which lent $55.3 billion to 6.4 million students in the 2007-2008 school year.

Obama outlined his initiatives, which also include incentives for colleges to cut costs and to raise graduation rates, in the fiscal 2010 budget that Congress approved Wednesday, and Democratic leaders said they hope to make them law by October.

The aim is to improve access to post-secondary school for those who need it most: lower-income students for whom college or vocational training can be the decisive factor in their economic future. The president has said he wants the United States to lead the world by 2010 in the proportion of college graduates, a position the country had long held; it now ranks seventh for the 25 to 34 age group. He has also called for every American to attend a post-secondary institution.

Neither goal will be met if students can't afford the cost.

The administration's plans are "the most fundamental rewriting of federal student aid policy in 35 years," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "These are big changes. They are painted with a broad brush. . . . It's easy for this to be overshadowed by health-care proposals, but for many families, these discussions will be equally important."

Even critics of the plan say the status quo is unsustainable.

Students are amassing debt on a scale that approximates a home mortgage. The economic downturn has meant rising rates for defaults on loans, as well as for students dropping out. Private schools face shrinking endowments, and public universities face state budget cuts.

The tuition crisis has built over many years, however, and until recently Congress did little to address it. The maximum Pell Grant award was frozen at $4,050 from 2003 through 2007. When Democrats came to power, they laid the groundwork for many of the changes on the table, including raising Pell Grants to the current amount of $4,731. They also began to curb federally subsidized private loans.

But Obama would go much further. He wants to terminate the private Federal Family Education Loan program, the primary source of student loans. Advocates say the move is a formality: The government already effectively controls the program by guaranteeing the loans, paying a special allowance to lenders, and in recent months, buying back loans by the billions from struggling firms.

Shifting all lending authority to the government through its Direct Loan program would save $94 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Obama would use that windfall to expand the Pell Grant program, created in 1965 to cover most tuition costs for low-income students.

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