Federal Round-up: Congress finds Stafford fix; college affordability and higher education tax incentives subject of congressional hearings

With just days to go before the July 1 deadline, congressional leaders reached a compromise to prevent interest rates on federally subsidized student loans from doubling to 6.8 percent. The fix came as a part of the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012 that both the U.S. House and Senate passed on June 29. The measure would cover the $6 billion cost of extending the current 3.4 percent loan rate on new subsidized loans for one year by raising premiums for federal pension insurance, changing the method for determining how much money businesses must invest in their defined-benefit pension plans, and limiting students’ access to federally subsidized loans to 150 percent of their program length. The bill also included reauthorization language for the University Transportation Center program. The University of Oregon is a partner in the National Institute for Transportation and Communities (formerly Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium), which is a federally funded university transportation center. Language in the surface transportation bill will require current grant recipients to apply at the end of the year. Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that brokered the compromise.

The conversation about college costs and college affordability continued into July as House and Senate panels held hearings and the Institute for Higher Education Policy issued a new report on the topic. The House Education and Workforce Subcommittee on Higher Education held a hearing on July 18 titled “Keeping College Within Reach.”  The hearing covered state government efforts to reduce costs and student debt burden. Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) also held a hearing on July 19 titled “Making College Affordability a Priority.” The hearing addressed institutional practices and strategies for reducing student costs. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, sits on the HELP Committee.

A new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy finds that for a variety of reasons and in spite of increasing enrollment rates, “most people do not question the idea that college is unaffordable.” The report, “Is College Affordable? In Search of a Meaningful Definition,” states that rising college prices, stagnating incomes, and diminished asset values have led to the widespread view that college is unaffordable for more and more people. Contributing to these misperceptions is the fact that the public significantly overestimates the price of college and that tuition pricing and student aid systems are so complex that many people do not realize the extent to which the net price that many students pay is lower than the published price. The University of Oregon has a variety of programs that help provide aid for Oregon students, including PathwayOregon.