Brown: Students’ wallets an immediate issue

By Jacob Brown

Along with the 2,700-page health care bill that unfortunately made its way through the halls… Along with the 2,700-page health care bill that unfortunately made its way through the halls of Congress last Sunday, another piece of important legislation rode in on its coattails.

Under an addendum of the reconciliation bill that went through the House, the Pell Grant for college students is set to receive a $36 billion injection, raising its maximum payout per student from $5,350 this school year to $5,550 next year, leveling at $6,000 by 2017. The rider bill also calls for ending the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) guarantee program that Sallie Mae, among other private banks, uses to insure student loans.

In its place, the federal government will support Stafford Loans directly instead of through third parties like Sallie Mae. According to the independent Congressional Budget Office, the elimination of the FFEL program will yield savings of $61 billion over the next 10 years.

On the surface, this all looks like some really good lemonade to be made from an almost $1 trillion pile of lemons. The final verdict upon Pitt’s administrators.

This expansion should cut overhead for students, who are charged service fees amounting to $134 more per $3,000 loan through FFEL lenders than private lenders, according to a January 2009 article published in The Nation.

Yearly, that totals more than $4.4 billion of loan money that goes toward bank fees instead of helping students. Also, the U.S. Department of Education reported in its 2011 projections that it would have to relieve FFEL lenders of $112 billion in student loans.

It’s a natural path toward consolidating overspending on government bureaucracy. However, Sallie Mae Communications Officer Patricia Christel contends that this legislation will force the company to have to lay off one-third of its 8,600-member staff when “our country can least afford to lose them.”

“Congress could have achieved its reform and savings goals in a way that helped both students and workers, but instead chose not to,” she said.

She’s right to worry about the jobs her company provides. But as a student, easing the burden that comes with the investment of a college education takes top priority, and every dollar saved helps.

This bill should actually give some tangible benefits to students when it goes into effect in July. But if Pitt were to increase its in-state tuition just three percent, it would effectively offset any advantage gained from the Pell Grant or the adjustment in service fees, accounting for a $430 tuition increase.

Back in November when I was invited to speak at the tuition tax hearing with City Council, I made a point to mention that there are a significant number of students, not padded by parental wallets, who are struggling financially through college.

After I spoke, current SGB President Charlie Shull took his turn.Despite the fact that the tuition tax is off the table, I wonder if our efforts were useless. Pitt has historically increased tuition rates faster than the rate of inflation. Last year the University nobly halted tuition increases to align with the 2008 inflation rate of 3.8 percent. But it has raised rates in the past five years as high as 6.49 percent. The University trustees have decided to postpone the annual tuition talk until the summer this year, coincidentally the same time the new laws begin to take effect.

If tuition were to mirror the inflation rate again for next year, our rates should go down 0.4 percent instead of up, accounting for the nation’s negative growth.

Because Pitt asked us to fight to keep the city from taxing us 1 percent of our tuition, its trustees would be hypocrites to raise tuition in spite of the Pell Grant changes and the asinine city proposal we fought against last year.

Students, more than ever, are facing financial hardship through this recession.

I’m not a fan of government handouts, but education, especially from publicly-funded institutions, ought to be more accessible to anyone who has the academic credentials to be there. And it ought to be affordable, too.

So out of $938 billion, at least the government allocated $36 billion of it properly. I doubt working to fix health care will solve any of our country’s more immediate problems, but working to invest in educating its future leaders will.

E-mail Jacob at [email protected].