On Feb. 7 , the U.S. House of Representatives voted resoundingly in favor of the proposed College Opportunity and Affordability Act by a margin of 354 to 58. Coming on the heels of a bill passed last September to increase federal Pell Grants to college students, the Opportunity and Affordability Act demonstrates Congress's increased focus on reducing the cost of college and expanding college access for low- and middle-income students.
"A lot of what the federal government is trying to do is to make the financial aid process more transparent and simplistic for the families of college students," said Robert Lay, Boston College's dean for enrollment management.
According to a press release on Feb. 7 from the House Committee on Education and Labor, the bill aims to address rising tuitions by encouraging colleges to rein in price increases, ensuring that states maintain their commitments to higher education funding, and providing students and families with consumer-friendly information on college pricing and the factors driving tuition increases.
"Last year, by enacting a $20 billion increase in federal student aid -- the largest increase since the G.I. Bill of 1944 -- this Congress took a historic step to help American families pay for college," said U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, in the release. "Now we are redoubling our commitment to college students and parents by reining in skyrocketing tuition prices and making our whole system of higher education far more consumer-friendly."
One of the major goals of the bill, should it be passed in the Senate, is to hold individual colleges to a higher standard of accountability in efforts to make college more affordable. Lay stresses that despite the steady increase in tuition at BC, the University is fully committed to meeting 100 percent of the students' demonstrated needs.
"The federal government is trying to make sure these funds are used appropriately -- our financial aid department is responsible for identifying need in our student population," Lay said. "Our policy is that we will meet the full financial need of a student, and we guarantee that for four years."
The Office of Financial Aid at BC works toward assembling the best package of financial aid available for each individual student, through a combination of federal Pell Grants, Perkins loans, and Stafford loans, as well as a variety of state grants and loans. If these do not adequately fulfill a certain student's needs, BC will cover the difference through loans from the University's endowment and general budget.
"Anyone can get federal funds regardless of income," Lay said. He cited the example of many varsity athletes who are on partial athletic scholarships and rely on federal grants and loans to finance the remainder of their education.
A major focus of the bill involves spreading awareness regarding federal programs aimed at making college more accessible to lower-income students. By streamlining the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and vowing to provide students with fair and complete information about their borrowing options when taking out and repaying student loans, the hope is that more students will be able to pursue a college education without having to worry about costs and interest piling up after graduation.
The average debt of last year's graduating class was $20,350, with an average of $16,680 being in federal loans, according to Bernard Pekala, director of student financial strategies at BC. This means that on average, 82 percent of the total debt by graduating BC students is in federal loan programs, which have drastically lower interest rates than private loans from banks.
The Perkins loan has an interest rate of 5 percent,and the Stafford loan has a rate of 6.8 percent, compared to interest rates of over 10 percent on most private loans, evidence of why it's important for BC students to be following what's going on in Congress, Pekala said.
"We look at how much students borrow from all means, and at how much of that is in federal loans," Pekala said. "Whenever we can help the student and family come up with a better loan, it's a win-win situation."
With the Master Plan looming, and with the proposed costs for the massive overhaul of BC's campus coming very close to BC's total endowment, the University does not have the resources to offer free tuition to its students like a handful of other universities have already done. "We expect it to be a partnership [between the University and the students]," Pekala said.
"Aside from it partly being financed through the endowment and revenues such as athletics, the general budget is dependent on tuition to make this a high-quality institution," Lay said.
While the cost of attending BC is expected to continue to rise as a result of the University's expansion, Lay asks students to remain patient and trust in the abilities of the Office of Financial Aid to continue to meet the needs of students.
"We're really thinking of the future of BC, too -- we want to be among the best colleges in the country and we want to increase our quality," Lay said. "Students do not necessarily directly benefit [from the Master Plan] right now, but the future of BC is going to encompass a lot of people, and the value of a BC degree will continue to rise. We hope everyone understands going to BC is a good investment.
"The net cost is what you should be looking at," Lay said. "We're trying to neutralize the cost issue -- we don't want the price to be a barrier. We want students to come here because we are the best school."
It is probable that the bill will take several more months of deliberating before it is actually passed into law, Lay said.
It had already been amended more than 20 times prior the assembly's vote. If and when President Bush approves the bill, it aims to ultimately bring more diversity, both racial and financial, to America's universities. Because of BC's commitment to maintaining its need-blind status, Lay and Pekala believe the department is ahead of the curve.
"In admissions, we look at the whole individual. We look at what they've achieved and hope to achieve," Pekala said. "Our vision is to be a premier school."
"We admit people regardless of their ability to pay," Lay said. "The main thing that we're doing is trying to allocate based on financial need. The focus is on income diversity -- we're looking for the best students [regardless of need]. In order for us to maximize our diversity we need these need-based programs."
© 2008 The Heights via U-WIRE