HISTORIANS WILL NOT recall the first decade of the 21st century as a time of national unity. Political consensus among our leaders is an elusive ideal. Senior statesmen on both sides of the aisle have decried the especially bitter tone of political partisanship. Popular approval ratings for both Congress and the president have fallen below normal levels; disillusionment with government is well documented.
Yet during this past month, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, landmark legislation that will help make college more affordable for both poor and middle-class families. President Bush put aside earlier objections and a veto threat to sign the bill, citing his priority of increased financial support for the neediest students. The bipartisan support was heartening: The House vote was decisive, 292-97, and the Senate vote even more overwhelming, at 79-12.
It is a historic occasion. A briefing paper by the House Education and Labor Committee describes the new bill as "the largest investment in higher education since the GI Bill--at no new cost to the taxpayers." Most significant is the increase of the maximum Pell Grant, from $4,310 a year per student to $5,400 a year by 2012. (After five years of no increase, this increase is the biggest since the program's inception in 1973.)
Interest rates on federally backed student loans are cut in half, a critical benefit to middle-class students. Incentives are provided for students with loans who seek public service jobs; upfront tuition assistance is provided to undergraduates who seek teaching jobs in "high-poverty communities or high-need subject areas"; and substantial investments are targeted toward "minority-serving institutions," such as historically black colleges and universities. Subsidies to lenders in the student loan industry will be reduced to help finance these improvements.
EDUCATING THE UNDERSERVED
This is good news, especially for schools such as Alvernia College (Pa.) with a historic commitment to educating those with modest or meager financial resources and to preparing students for careers in teaching and public service. From the time of its founding by the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters a half century ago, Alvernia has placed special emphasis on educating the underserved--first-generation students, sons …