HISTORIANS WILL NOT recall the first decade of the 21st century as a time of national unity. Political consensus among our leaders is an elusive ideal. Senior statesmen on both sides of the aisle have decried the especially bitter tone of political partisanship. Popular approval ratings for both Congress and the president have fallen below normal levels; disillusionment with government is well documented.
Yet during this past month, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, landmark legislation that will help make college more affordable for both poor and middle-class families. President Bush put aside earlier objections and a veto threat to sign the bill, citing his priority of increased financial support for the neediest students. The bipartisan support was heartening: The House vote was decisive, 292-97, and the Senate vote even more overwhelming, at 79-12.
It is a historic occasion. A briefing paper by the House Education and Labor Committee describes the new bill as "the largest investment in higher education since the GI Bill-at no new cost to the taxpayers." Most significant is the increase of the maximum Pell Grant, from $4,310 a year per student to $5,400 a year by 2012. (After five years of no increase, this increase is the biggest since the program's inception in 1973.)
Interest rates on federally backed student loans are cut in half, a critical benefit to middle-class students. Incentives are provided for students with loans who seek public service jobs; upfront tuition assistance is provided to undergraduates who seek teaching jobs in "high-poverty communities or high-need subject areas"; and substantial investments are targeted toward "minority-serving institutions," such as historically black colleges and universities. Subsidies to lenders in the student loan industry will be reduced to help finance these improvements.
This is good news, especially for schools such as Alvernia College (Pa.) with a historic commitment to educating those with modest or meager financial resources and to preparing students for careers in teaching and public service. From the time of its founding by the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters a half century ago, Alvernia has placed special emphasis on educating the underserved-first-generation students, sons and daughters of immigrant families, and working women and men seeking to achieve long-delayed educational goals.
Some students come to Alvernia directly from high school, some as proud graduates of area community colleges. Many return to school after raising families or deciding to change careers. During my first two years as president of Alvernia, I have heard countless stories from individuals whose lives were transformed by this opportunity, the support of the Bernardine Sisters and other caring faculty and staff, and their own work ethic and motivation.
Like all private colleges, Alvernia allocates institutional funds to help make college more affordable. We also have kept our tuition comparatively lower than many of our peers, in the belief that the personal, caring attention families expect of a private college should be accessible to all, regardless of their financial resources.
Yet the federal and state governments are essential partners in this effort. During the 2005-2006 academic year, for example, Alvernia students received close to $1.5 million in Pell Grant funding and substantial additional funds that were available only to the poorest families. In the same year, our students received more than $2.3 million in state grants.
The economic data demonstrate that personal and national prosperity is directly linked to educational access and attainment. More than a few college presidents have said the best economic development policy is strong public (and private) support for education. There is no question about the excellent return on this investment. But federal and state investment in higher education is also consistent with the highest ideals of our democracy. That is still another reason to rejoice in the bipartisan support of this new legislation.
Even in peacetime, education policy seldom attracts the attention of a riveting political scandal or the latest sound bites from a candidates' debate. In a time of war, it is even more understandable -indeed essential- that our attention be drawn toward foreign policy and the safety of our soldiers. Yet perhaps that is another reason to celebrate this support for our students. It reflects the best of our politics. And in a time of political division, this new legislation represents a thread of consensus and national unity.
Thomas F. Flynn is president of Alvernia College in Reading, Pa.