We have a number of grievances against the U.S. Senate. Here's one more to add the list: The dysfunctional chamber is stalling on an important bill that would expand student aid and go a long way towards making college affordable.
We had high hopes when the House passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) in September. Right now, there are two ways to secure federal student loans. Most loans are distributed through private loan companies and are guaranteed and subsidized by the federal government. About 2,000 colleges — including Brown — participate in direct lending, in which the Department of Education makes loans without an intermediary. SAFRA calls for an end to bank-based student lending and requires all institutions to move to direct lending. Simply by eliminating banks as middlemen, the bill would save $87 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The legislation would use that money to increase access to education in a number of ways, including raising the maximum Pell Grant and lowering the interest rate on federal student loans. Both federal programs assist millions of American students each year.
SAFRA is long overdue. Since the 1980s, college tuition and fees have increased 439 percent — far more than medical care, the Consumer Price Index or median family income. Paying for college is taking an increasingly heavy toll on families, even when financial aid is considered. At public four-year institutions, Americans in the middle income quintile spend on average 25 percent of their family income on college. The same figure for the lowest income quintile is a whopping 55 percent of earnings. A 2008 report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education summed up the situation with grim predictions: "The continuation of trends of the last quarter century would place higher education beyond the reach of most Americans and would greatly exacerbate the debt burdens of those who do enroll."
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like SAFRA is going to move forward anytime soon. Loan companies oppose the legislation, claiming it would eliminate jobs in the lending industry. Critics in the Senate say the free market will do a better job supplying loans than the federal government, and that, in the words of one senator, "relying on budgetary gimmicks to stage another Washington takeover" will not benefit students.
Mostly, though, the bill is stuck in the Senate's procedural funk. Because legislators do not have the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster, they are hoping to pass SAFRA through the reconciliation process, which allows senators to change existing laws to reduce federal spending with a simple majority vote. The problem? The health care bill may also move through reconciliation, and under Senate rules, only one bill at a time may be considered under this process.
That means the student loan bill will either have to wait, or become intertwined with the already imperiled health reform bill. Either way, timing does not look good. July 1 marks the beginning of the student-lending season, and each day of delay on SAFRA will make it more difficult for the Department of Education to expand the direct lending system before summer.
Come on, Senators. It's inexcusable enough that millions of Americans do not have access to an affordable college education. But it's even more inexcusable that you are keeping it that way.
Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.