Congress hears call for more federal student aid funding

By Jonathan Wroble

In a congressional hearing on Thursday, March 8, U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa said that the number of college graduates must rise significantly over the next 18 years for the U.S. to keep pace with international competitors.

He was unsure, however, whether this is a feasible goal if the cost of higher education continues to rise as well.

“(A Jobs for the Future) report found that by the year 2025 … the United States would need to produce an additional 15.6 million college graduates, (or) 781,000 degrees per year,” he said during the hearing. “We have not aligned our support for higher education to reflect this reality.”

Hinojosa is the chairman of the 110th House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Competitiveness and Lifelong Learning. His remarks opened a hearing that featured four speakers on the topic of funding for higher education.

So far this year, the issue has seen both pros and cons within Illinois and across the nation.

Earlier this month, for example, it was announced that the tuition at Illinois’ public schools is expected to increase between nine and 11 percent by next year. The University’s current tuition and fees cost is less than $10,000 for in-state residents and more than $24,000 for out-of-state students.

At the same time, this number is somewhat misleading. In Illinois, tuition rates are locked for incoming freshman at public universities, meaning that a nine percent increase is actually a two to three percent increase each year for four years.

Nationwide, other states have already announced low tuition rates. The average undergraduate at a public university in Utah, for instance, will pay just 6.6 percent more in Fall 2007, or $74 more per semester. That’s the lowest increase in Utah since 2001.

But James Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy and one of the speakers at Thursday’s hearing, said more must be done for today’s college students than just capping tuition rates.

Specifically, Merisotis stressed the importance of the country’s financial aid programs. He explained that funding initiatives like the Pell Grant program pay about one-third of college tuition today and paid over two-thirds in 1980.

“Research indicates that investment in need-based grant aid is the best and most important contribution that the federal government can make to keeping the dream of a college education a reality,” he said at the hearing. “The declining purchasing power of federal aid continues to be a critical barrier to … higher education.”

While such changes in federal funding remain to be seen, steps have already been taken within Illinois. In his State of the State address on Wednesday, March 7, Gov. Rod Blagojevich proposed the biggest tax increase in the history of Illinois. His plan would bring in around $7 billion, $6 billion of which would go to health care and education annually.

For the University, this budget proposal translates into a 1.9 percent increase in funding. While this number falls far short of the University’s original request of an 8 percent increase, President B. Joseph White called it “welcome news for public higher education in Illinois.”