Spotlight: Student-Loan Reform

"Government takeover!" So yelled the many critics of President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill. But in their focus on the main event, Republicans seem to have all but ignored another part of the legislation that more precisely fits their rhetoric. In addition to securing the President a victory on health care, the House bill took him one step closer to delivering on a promise to reform the college-student-loan system.

If a final piece of legislation before the Senate is approved, millions of students will get their federal loans directly from the Department of Education. In other words, the federal government would sweep aside private competitors in the biggest change to the federal student-loan program since its creation in 1965. It’s a legitimate government takeover.

So where’s all that outrage now? The thing is, the government already runs much of the student-loan industry. For decades under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, the government has handed out subsidies to large banks and companies like Sallie Mae that lend money to student borrowers and collect it from them. In addition, the federal government has been obligated to cover up to 97% of any defaulted loan, effectively eliminating risk for lenders. Figuring that money could be saved by cutting out the middleman, Congress created the Direct Loan program–in which money goes from the Education Department to students–in 1993. The programs have been in competition with each other since then.

Until now. Gone will be the subsidies, and gone will be the FFEL program. As of July 1, all new student loans will go through the Direct Loan program. The savings–an estimated $61 billion over 10 years–will be used to shore up and increase the need-based Pell Grant program by $36 billion and invest in community colleges. While the Administration has reason enough to crow about the proposed measures, it has had to scale back some of its bigger plans. An earlier version of the bill would have invested an additional $20 billion and offered even more substantial financial-aid increases. As it stands, $13.5 billion will be used to stem Pell Grant shortfalls resulting from the increased number of students forced back to college by the ailing economy. And a plan to raise the maximum Pell amount to almost $7,000 per year by 2020 has been replaced with one that maxes out at about $6,000.

With his first major piece of education legislation out of the way, Obama will likely move on to K-12 matters later this year as he attempts to rework the unpopular No Child Left Behind law. But before then, members of Congress (and America’s students) are going on spring break.


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