Sunday, November 19th, 2017

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Students push federal government for more funding

Matt Guidry, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, is already $20,000 in debt and worrying about how he’s going to afford graduate school.

This week he’s in Washington with hundreds of other students lobbying for the Student Aid Reward Act.

The Evansville resident is an old hand at persuasion, especially when it comes to money in his pocket. As vice chairman of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit organization that rallies behind student issues, he travels the state to talk with UW administrators and regularly organizes groups of UW students to lobby the governor and legislators in Madison. He also has visited Wausau Democratic Rep. Dave Obey’s district office and met with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.

The Student Aid Reward Act (known as STAR) was introduced by Fond du Lac Republican Rep. Tom Petri and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) nearly two years ago, but not brought to a vote. It would make more money available to college students to pay for tuition without any additional cost to taxpayers.

Petri admitted last week in a phone conversation with a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter that he couldn’t advance the bill in a Republican-controlled House, but since Democrats took control last month "we have a much better shot."

At a news conference (Feb. 13) that was packed with college students and several members of Congress from both parties, STAR was reintroduced.

In Petri’s district alone, STAR would add about $1.2 million in student aid. Across the state, Wisconsin students would see an additional $15.5 million to help pay their higher education costs.

One after another, lawmakers and students stood up for the right of all students to pursue college degrees.

"Higher education is key to a better future," said state Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), "and we have to look for every new way to make college more affordable."

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would save the government $13 billion, and that least $10 billion of that would be available as new financial aid.

There currently are two kinds of student loan programs that provide roughly the same loans and interest rates to students.

In one program, students borrow money from banks, which act as the middlemen between student and college. This is an expensive program that is heavily subsidized by the federal government and results in significant – critics say excessive – profits for lending institutions.

"Student loans are the second most profitable business for banks after credit cards," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in his news conference remarks.

In the other program, students borrow directly from the government through their schools. The bank as a go-between is eliminated, and the loan is secured at a lower rate.

Petri said the STAR bill would generate the $13 billion in savings offering schools an incentive to obtain money for their students via the cheaper program: Colleges and universities would be allowed to keep half the money saved by the federal government in the form of increased Pell Grants to aid low- and middle-income students.

"If the loan program is passed this session, there’ll be more Pell money and I’ll be able to get a grant," said Guidry. "I’d only have to borrow $5- to $7,000 next year instead of more than $10,000."

"We will have the opportunity for debate on the floor," promised Kennedy, and if necessary, "we will have every student in the U.S. on the floor for debate."

Petri added: "With enthusiastic support in the House and Senate, I believe we’ll get a serious hearing in this Congress and it will pass."

© 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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