Community Colleges to Benefit from New Higher Ed Bill: Ambitious Higher Education Legislation Is Loaded with Student Aid, Community College Improvements

Article excerpt

Billed as the most ambitious higher education legislation in years, a measure recently approved by a congressional committee has a number of provisions that may help students and community colleges for years to come.

Passed with much fanfare by a House panel this summer, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) would raise the maximum Pell Grant and then peg it to a level slightly above inflation, with the top grant increasing from $5,550 to $6,900 in 10 years at a cost of $47 billion. The bill's proposed $2 billion in new funds for minority-serving institutions also has generated interest among historically Black colleges and other institutions. Perhaps the most controversial provision in the bill would replace the bank-led Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program with direct government loans--a move that would save $87 billion over 10 years, its advocates say.

But tucked into the bill are many other provisions likely to change the federal role in everything from campus-based student aid to financial aid applications. One significant winner would be community colleges, which would stand to gain more than $9 billion under goals to improve infrastructure and college completion rates.

"This is going to be one of the most monumental pieces of legislation for higher education in some time," said Gregory Cendana, president of the United States Student Association. "It speaks to the need to prioritize investment in higher education."

Community colleges stand to gain significantly if the bill becomes law. Among other provisions, the bill would provide:

* $600 million a year in competitive grants to community colleges for "reform" efforts including student support services, work force development programs, transfer agreement and other efforts to increase degree completion rates.

* $600 million a year for state grants that support "systemic reform" of community and junior college systems, with goals to better serve high-need populations and improve graduation rates.

* $50 million a year for community colleges and partners to develop more high-quality online courses.

In addition, community colleges would receive $2.5 billion for facility modernization, repair and improvement. Among other uses, funds could be used to match private donations to community college capital campaigns.

Two-year colleges also would get a share of a proposed new $3 billion college access and completion initiative.

Students also could be big winners. In addition to the Pell Grant increase, the legislation would dramatically expand federal funding for Perkins Loans, a campus-based program designed to supplement other aid to needy students.

"Perkins is an important loan program because it's one that has lower interest rates," Cendana said.

Funding for the program would grow from $1 billion to $6 billion. …