New Congress Expected to Give Education Higher Profile: Initiatives Plan to Improve College Access and Affordability

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With a major shakeup looming on Capitol Hill, education advocates are preparing for a new environment in which Democrats will seek more financial aid assistance and give higher education more visibility in Congress.

Democrats on the 2006 midterm campaign trail promised to cut student loan interest rates in half, create new education tax breaks and expand Pell Grant funding. By winning a majority in the House of Representatives and gaining control of the Senate, the party is raising expectations for quick action on several fronts in early 2007.

"Democrats will be under pressure to deliver on access and affordability," says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

As outlined by U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the likely new Speaker of the House, the Democrat's education agenda includes three major higher education components:

* Student loans: Cut interest rates in half for student and parent loans, to 3.4 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively.

* Tax credits: Simplify existing education tax breaks and grant a $3,000 credit, or enough to cover 55 percent of the average tuition and fees at a public four-year college.

* Pell Grants: Increase the maximum grant for needy students by 25 percent, to $5,100.

Democrats may seek some of these changes within days of taking control of Congress in January. Within the first 100 hours, Pelosi plans to seek action on a number of issues, including a minimum wage increase. Lower interest rates may become part of that package as well, says Nassirian.

Financial institutions, however, are likely to oppose interest rate cuts, he adds, and the banking industry has allies in both parties.

Should House Democrats move quickly on these issues, action in the more deliberative Senate may take more time. Democrats will hold only a razor-thin advantage in a chamber known for seeking consensus on many issues.

"It's going to be tough to go into [the Senate] with anything resembling a mandate" Nassirian says. However, he adds that the small increase in Pell Grants recommended by House Republicans "would be one of the least controversial changes."

U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is poised to take over the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. U.S. Rep George Miller, D-Calif., is in line to run the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. U.S. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who Nassirian calls "a longtime supporter of higher education" will likely lead the House Committee on Appropriations, which controls the purse strings for thousands of federal programs, including those in education.

More education funding also is a priority for the Congressional Black Caucus, all of whom are Democrats. Overwhelming support from Black voters helped carry Democrats to victory in the midterm elections, says Dr. Ron Waiters, a political scientist and director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. …