Money for Your College Tuition, Through Senator Kennedy’s Eyes

“So education is the key. It is the key to all the important progress this Nation is going to make in the future.” —Senator Edward M. Kennedy, U.S. Senate speech, July 2007, supporting the College Cost Reduction and Access Act

Ted_KennedyBorn into easy wealth and privilege, Senator Ted Kennedy dedicated his long career to working on behalf of the underdog and the common man. The goal of each piece of legislation he wrote or cosponsored was to level the playing field for those at a disadvantage, whether it was societal, physical, or financial. Securing federal funding so that non-wealthy students could get money for college tuition was just one element of an education policy he promoted and sustained for more than 45 years.

Senator Kennedy repeatedly identified education as “the pathway to progress and prosperity” and essential to the achievement of the “American Dream” — but he also saw how the high cost of college put earning a degree out of reach for many Americans. From the Higher Education Act of 1965 onwards, he worked relentlessly to make federal money for college tuition available to anyone who needed assistance. Millions of students have achieved college degrees with the help of the financial aid programs created and preserved by the senator and his like-minded legislative colleagues.

One of Senator Kennedy’s contributions to financial aid development will sound familiar to many students: in 1972, he supported Senator Claiborne Pell’s creation of today’s best known education grant for college, the Pell Grant.

In 1993, the senator helped to establish the Direct Lending program, an alternative to the FFEL student loan program. In the FFEL program, a third party such as a banking institution is the student loan lender. In the Direct Lending program, the U.S. Treasury is the lender. As of 2009, more than 12 million students have paid for college with low-cost direct loans. In 2008, when the credit crisis began to affect private loan availability, the potential advantages of the Direct Lending program became a little more visible.

Always aware that the money required for college tuition was surging upwards with every September, Senator Kennedy defended federal financial aid year after year. In 2007, he shepherded the successful passage of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, authorizing the largest increase in student aid since the original GI Bill in 1944. Among other benefits, the CCRAA increased the maximum Pell grant, halved interest rates on subsidized student loans, and changed student loan debt repayment so that it was based on income rather than remaining debt.

The 2007 CCRAA led the way to more financial aid improvements in 2008, when Senator Kennedy worked with Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming to pass the Higher Education Opportunity Act. The HEOA authorized simplifying the FAFSA, preventing unethical practices in the private student loan industry, and increasing federal money for college tuition for students with the greatest financial need, members of the military, and students with disabilities.

These are just a few of the ways that Senator Kennedy tried to support Americans seeking a college degree. But not everyone agrees with the senator that increasing federal financial aid is the best way to help non-wealthy students find money for college tuition. It often appears that with every increase in federal financial aid, most schools raise their tuition and the effect of the federal assistance is lost. A demand for college accountability is growing — a measure other than the annual “Best Colleges” rankings by which students and families can more realistically determine whether a school is worth its sticker price. Stay tuned for future posts about the subject of controlling tuition growth.

For now, one of education’s greatest legislative champions is gone. There are many other legislators just as dedicated to the education ideal, but none as influential. It will be up to students, families, and all those who believe in the value of a quality education to ensure that college costs and the money for college tuition stay within reach for anyone seeking a degree.

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