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.
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Proposals Would Transform College Aid

Creating another mandatory spending program during a recession, with a record high federal deficit, leaves many lawmakers uneasy.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), the senior Republican on the House Budget Committee, decried Obama's Pell Grant proposal as "an autopilot entitlement immune from congressional oversight at precisely the time when we should be reforming existing entitlements."

Obama also is seeking to overhaul federal Perkins loans, administered by schools to bridge gaps between other loans, grants and scholarships. The revamped Perkins program would provide $6 billion in loans a year, compared with the current level of $1 billion, and participation would be expanded beyond the current 1,800 institutions to all 4,400 colleges and universities. An additional 2.7 million students could receive the loans.

In a potentially significant shift, the administration has suggested it wants to change the distribution formula for Perkins loans, to give priority to needier students and to reward schools that control costs.

The private lending industry is fighting to preserve its role, but Obama asserted last month that he saw the choice as stark.

"In the end, this is not about growing the size of government or relying on the free market -- because it's not a free market when we have a student loan system that's rigged to reward private lenders without any risk."

Industry officials contend that private loans provide stronger default protections and better serve smaller schools, and some institutions have suggested that they may be content to play a more limited role. Industry officials are urging lawmakers to convene a summit of industry leaders to search for middle ground. But they also acknowledge that the prospect of capturing $94 billion and directing it to Pell Grant assistance could prove hard for Congress to resist.

"The only reason they're doing this is the government can make a lot of money," said Kevin Bruns, executive director of the trade group America's Student Loan Providers. "Private-sector lending built this entire industry, and now the federal government has piggybacked off of it."

White House officials, along with veterans of financial aid debates, have been surprised by the lack of strong resistance to the Obama plan so far, even among Republicans.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), House education committee chairman, said the recent credit market turmoil "pretty much makes the case" that private lending is an unstable source of college aid. But he said lawmakers from both parties are bombarded with complaints about college costs, and they know something must change.

"It's a very significant amount of savings and will be very beneficial to families," Miller said.

The most vocal naysayer is Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who voted against the budget in part because of the student loan proposal. Nelson's state is home to Nelnet, a Lincoln-based corporate loan provider that employs 1,000 people and that has contributed generously to his political campaigns.

"It's not just thinking about your state," he said. "I have a fundamental difference in opinion thinking that all student aid ought to come from the government."

But other Democrats with large private lending operations in their states, including Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida and Sen. Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania, supported the 2010 budget, with the student loan reforms intact.

As the legislation advances, Democratic lawmakers are anticipating a far more forceful opposition. "The lobbyists are very active on this one," Miller said.

Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D-N.Y.), a former college provost and a member of Miller's committee, said the lending proposal "goes to the very heart of one's perception of what is the role of the federal government. And I think there will be a significant fight over it."

But he added, "If you just look at it from the practical aspects of how the program functions, it's really hard to justify. Why do we need a middleman?"


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