Obama pushes Pell Grant bill

By Nate Sandstrom

Sen. Barack Obama spoke at a news conference at the Illini Union on Wednesday to promote a bill increasing the maximum award of Pell Grants – the first piece of legislation he will introduce as a member of the U.S. Senate.

The bill, the Higher Education Through Pell Grant Expansion Act, or HOPE Act, would increase the maximum award from $4,050 and $5,100 per year. Increases in the maximum grant would also be tied to inflation, he said.

Pell Grants, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. They are awarded to students based on their financial need and the costs of attending a university. The awards range from $400 to $4,050, a figure widely believed to be too low to adequately cover the cost of a college education today.

Obama said he was fulfilling a campaign promise to make higher education more affordable. He said rising college costs prevented 200,000 students from attending college last year.

He also said the federal government needs to educate its citizens so the United States can compete for businesses to locate here, rather than in countries such as India or China.

“The economy is going to depend on how effectively all of you are able to train yourselves for the high value, high wage jobs of the future,” Obama said.

Obama said he planned to fund the program’s $2 billion cost by reducing bank subsidies, which already benefit from student loans.

“This particular subsidy directly derives from their (banks’) participation in student loans,” Obama said.

“I don’t begrudge them for profiting,” he said. “I just don’t think it makes sense for them to profit on the backs of students.”

The Senate narrowly passed an amendment to President Bush’s budget proposal on March 17 that raises the maximum Pell Grant award to $4,500. However, the House budget proposal, passed the same day, contained no funding for a Pell Grant increase. Members of both houses of Congress now must reconcile the two bills.

Obama said he wants to raise the maximum grant award to $5,100 because it was the amount Bush proposed while running for president in 2000.

The bill would also increase the number of students eligible for Pell Grants, he said.

Obama said that while the increase would not wipe out college students’ financial burden, an additional $1,000 each year would help.

“This bill is a small step in the right direction,” he said. “This could make a difference in terms of whether you have to work 10 hours a week or 25 hours a week. It could make the difference in terms of whether you are accumulating over the life of your college education an additional $5,000 in credit card debt that might end up being $10,000.”

Obama also said colleges need to look for ways to contain costs and be more efficient. Students might have to sacrifice some of the amenities of on-campus living areas to lower costs as well, he said.

Jacob Smallhorn, sophomore in LAS and member of the College Democrats, also spoke at the news conference.

He said many people from his hometown of Charleston, Ill., were unable to attend college somewhere else because they could not afford it.

“Every time I get the bill I look at it and I see – ‘Oh my God,’ I’m accumulating huge amounts of debt,” he said.

During the 2003-2004 school year, 4,924 students at the University received Pell Grants, said Daniel Mann, University director of financial aid. The average amount received was $2,690.

Mann and Interim Chancellor Richard Herman expressed support for the bill.

“His (Obama’s) interests coincide with our interest of bringing together the most talented people from all socioeconomic classes,” Herman said.

Seniors Jared Collins, LAS, and Dornecia Hunter, applied life studies, said they were picked from the crowd before the news conference to stand behind Obama during the presentation. They both said the opportunity was exciting.

“It was cool. It was a nice experience,” Collins said.

The news conference was part of a four-day tour by Obama to promote the plan, which included visits to Southern Illinois University and Bradley University.