U.S. Senator Mark Warner (VA-D) spoke to student representatives from the College of William and Mary and other Virginia universities about federal policy on higher education Wednesday via conference call from Washington, D.C.
Pell Grant legislation currently under debate in the U.S. Congress was one of the primary topics of discussion.
“While we’ve got tight fiscal times, unless we continue to invest in higher education we’re not going to give you the same benefits and opportunities I had when I got out of college,” Warner said. “Virginia has one of the best public education systems, and we don’t want to lose that edge.”
Hosted by Virginia21, a non-partisan political education lobbying group created in 2002 by students at the College, the discussion focused on student loans, the national debt, and youth participation in governmental processes. Virginia21 Executive Director Tom Kramer ’06 moderated the question-and-answer session and gave introductory remarks about the strained economic situation of higher education in Virginia, which has increased the demand for federal student loan and grant programs.
“Over the past ten years, the cost of tuition in Virginia has basically doubled,” Kramer said.
Warner’s opening statement focused on financial issues affecting universities and students, specifically the spending cuts on higher education supported by some members of Congress.
“There’s a particular effort in the House of Representatives to cut back on Pell Grants and many of the research opportunities our colleges indirectly benefit from,” he said. “It’s a pretty frustrating place up here, a lot more partisan than it needs to be. We’re working to get stuff done.”
Pell Grants are need-based entitlements awarded to undergraduate students on the basis of their families’ Expected Family Contributions, which are determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form and the number of credits they are taking. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 536 undergraduate students at the College, or 9 percent of the student body, received Pell Grants during the 2008-2009 school year.
A bill passed Feb. 19 by the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R.1, would cut approximately $5.7 billion from Pell Grant funding if signed into law, effectively reducing the maximum discretionary award per student by $845, or 17.4 percent.
This provision is part of the government spending plan currently under negotiation in the U.S. Congress. If a resolution on the legislation is not reached by midnight tonight, the federal government will shut down beginning Saturday.
The first question posed to Warner regarded new federal investment plans for higher education.
“The federal programs usually come in the form of research grants,” Warner said. “There has been a dramatic increase in the National Institute of Health funding; [we’ve] almost doubled the NIH budget. We’ve made a major investment in higher education through the Pell Grant program. It’s dramatically grown.”
These increases in aid funding, however, are in jeopardy due to Congress’s recent activity.
“That’s one of the areas that some of the new members of Congress have been trying to attack,” Warner said.
During the course of the call, Student Assembly President Chrissy Scott ’11 reminded Warner of his 2010 campaign promise to increase educational opportunities for lower and middle income families, and asked what steps he had taken to fulfill the pledge. Warner cited his support for Pell Grants, as evidenced by his voting record, and his work to prevent spending cuts of education aid programs.
“I voted for the increase funding for Pell Grants,” Warner said. “We are trying to work right now on a bigger bipartisan deficit reduction program.”
According to Warner, some representatives have been trying to ameliorate the $14 trillion national debt by targeting domestic discretionary spending, specifically education aid. He said he believes other programs should be examined so as to relieve education programs of the proposed spending cuts.
“If you’re trying to get all that from this one little sliver of the budget, student assistance gets shouldered with an unfair burden,” he said. “The best way I can help protect higher education assistance is to work on a long term deficit reduction plan.”
When asked about student loan forgiveness initiatives, Warner was ambivalent, citing the rise in tuition prices and the federal debt as reasons why such programs are unlikely.
“I don’t have a great answer here,” he said. “The reason is, most of our colleges and universities have a never-ending appetite for more resources. With a $14 trillion debt, the idea that we’re just going to give loan forgiveness for everybody is probably impossible.”
Warner’s proposed solutions to the problem of increased student debt included debt reduction for Americorps volunteers and increased credit for AP courses, which would allow students to graduate in — and pay for — fewer than eight semesters.
Warner concluded the call by encouraging students to express their support for federal education programs.
“I think your generation is very into social change. We need to have your voices heard,” he said. “Stay in the game. Try to convince your friends to be involved. I hope they all vote this year, regardless of who they vote for. Help vote in state senate and state house races— that really has the maximum effect.”
Scott said she appreciated the opportunity to hear from Warner and approved of his stance on federal student aid.
“He said he’s in support of programs, and that was great to hear,” Scott said. “He does support Pell Grants, which means he is in support of students in higher education.”