When U.S. Navy veteran Rachel Leon decided to enroll in college after 10 years of military service, she found out the GI Bill would cover the cost of attending Northampton Community College.
But as she plans for eventually transferring to a four-year institution, Leon already is bracing for the bill. The 33-year-old Bethlehem resident’s military benefits won’t cover the full cost of local private colleges, and she sees her fellow students also overwhelmed trying to juggle tuition costs, health care and other expenses.
“It’s so sad to me that people are buckling under the pressure of medical costs and student loans,” Leon said. “That’s not the country I fought for.”
Legislation advancing in the U.S. House of Representatives could help alleviate those financial burdens, if it can find a path to the president’s desk amid impeachment distractions and skepticism from a Republican-controlled Senate.
Dubbed the College Affordability Act, the bill is a rebranded version of the Higher Education Act, which outlines a broad swath of federal higher education policy. Among other provisions, it would boost the size of Pell grants, a federal aid program based solely on financial need, and expand how they can be used; simplify the application form for federal student aid and the loan repayment programs; create new grants to aid students with unexpected emergency costs to prevent them from leaving school; and offer incentives to states that offer tuition-free community college programs.
“It is legislation that sets out to comprehensively reform higher education in our country, to make it more affordable and more inclusive,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Susan Wild as she visited four Lehigh Valley colleges this week to talk with students and administrators about the bill. “It’s time for the federal government to reinvest in higher education."
Projected to cost $400 billion over 10 years, the measure cleared the House Education and Labor Committee last week, with the panel’s Democrats in support and Republicans opposed. The “no” votes included U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, a Republican whose district includes Carbon and Schuylkill counties, who criticized Democrats for not backing GOP amendments.
“There is a serious need for reform in our higher education system — tuition costs continue to soar while student readiness for today’s workforce is declining,” Meuser said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the goal to deliver a better return on investment is nowhere to be found in this bill.”
Half of students enrolled at NCC receive Pell grants, which under the House bill would see the maximum award rise by $500 and tie future annual increases to inflation.
The legislation also would expand how those grants are used, allowing them to cover the cost of short-term training programs. That’s something Wild said NCC officials had proposed when she asked earlier this year about policy changes that would be most helpful to the school and its students.
Pell-eligible dual enrollment programs, allowing students in high school to earn college credit, also would be expanded under the bill.
Several students in the NCC crowd said Pell grants were critical to helping them afford higher education. During Wild’s stop at Moravian College on Monday, senior Annisa Amatul said she used those grants to help pay for her first two years at NCC before she transferred.
“The more students who can benefit from this in the future, the better,” said Amatul, of Easton.
Wild, whose district includes Lehigh, Northampton and part of Monroe counties, worked on three provisions in the bill. Her additions would streamline the array of student loan repayment programs to two options; boost mental health and suicide prevention services for students; and expand support for students with disabilities.
The students and staffers she spoke to across the district gave Wild a list of additional changes they’d like to see federal officials include in the wide-ranging bill, such as making the federal aid form easier for those who can’t access financial information from their parents and more support for homeless.
Others pressed her for more aid to those graduating with overwhelming debt.
Evan Mengel, a 20-year-old Moravian junior who plans to be a teacher, estimates that without interest, he already is “70-grand deep.” He said he’s not alone, describing student debt as a national crisis.
“I think it’s great to create plans for future students, but right now we are at a crisis, and I wished she would have engaged more and told us about the current plans for the debt issue,” Mengel said.
Wild acknowledged the mounting issue of student debt, but said it would become harder to pass the bill if the price tag grew enough to include proposals to tackle existing debt.
“To some extent, there are trade-offs,” Wild said. "We’re increasing Pell grants, as I’ve said, and although that amount doesn’t sound tremendously large ... when you apply it across the country, the price tag is enormous. So, if we started including things like existing student loan debt, it would have made this act unpassable.”
Before any of those provisions could go into effect, they’ll need to be approved by the full House, which Wild said she expects to happen before the end of the year. The bill would then go to the U.S. Senate, where Republicans are working on their own narrower approach to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.
Washington correspondent Laura Olson can be reached at 202-780-9540 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Morning Call on November 5, 2019. To read it online, click here: At Lehigh Valley colleges, Rep. Susan Wild touts bill to make college ‘more affordable, more inclusive’