Speeches offer Bush Higher Education Plan

CHAPEL HILL — Though most of the State of the Union address Feb. 2 dealt with reforms to Social Security and spreading freedom throughout the world, President Bush also focused attention on his higher-education goals.

During his fifth State of the Union address, Bush advocated increasing Pell Grant funding as well as providing more funding for workforce training initiatives for community colleges. Both proposals were ways, Bush said, “to make our economy stronger and more dynamic.”

“To make our economy stronger and more dynamic, we must prepare a rising generation to fill the jobs of the 21st century,” Bush said to a joint session of the House and Senate. “… We will help an additional 200,000 workers to get training for a better career, by reforming our job training system and strengthening America’s community colleges. And we’ll make it easier for Americans to afford a college education, by increasing the size of Pell Grants.”

Bush used just a few sentences in the 50-minute speech to discuss his higher-education proposals. Insight, however, into those programs can be found in a Jan. 14 forum at Florida Community College in Jacksonville, Fla., where Bush outlined in more detail his higher-education goals for the Pell Grant program and community colleges.

During that speech, Bush said he wants to increase Pell Grant awards by $100 a year during the next five years. That would raise the grant to low-income students to $4,550, an estimated $15 billion investment over time. An additional $1,000 would be available to students who take a rigorous course load. The proposal also seeks to eliminate a $4.3 billion shortfall in the program by changing how student loans are gathered and administered.

Other student loan plans includes spending $100 million for a Presidential Math and Science Scholars Fund. The fund would provide $5,000 in grants for 20,000 Pell-eligible students to study science or math.

“Pell Grants are really important,” Bush said at Florida Community College. “Pell Grants make it possible for people to go to school who otherwise won’t go to school.”

Regarding community colleges, Bush aims to spend $125 million in the fiscal 2006 budget to promote a dual enrollment program that allows high school students to earn college credit at community colleges. He will propose spending $250 million to continue the Community-Based Job Training Grants to train workers in skills in demand by local employers.

“The community college system is flexible,” Bush said in January. “It is available. It’s got the ability to change a curriculum to meet the needs. It’s the demand-driven education system, which works.”

Some of Bush’s proposals have already been introduced in Congress. Both houses of Congress have introduced separate pieces of legislation regarding Pell Grant increases, including one piece of legislation that was introduced the day of the State of the Union by members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

According to a press release from the Committee on Education and the Workforce, College Access and Opportunity Act (H.R. 507) would seek to expand Pell Grant awards to as much as $5,800 per award. The bill would also attempt to simplify the college aid application process and reduce fees students pay on loans among other initiatives.

The bill was originally introduced during the 108th Congress, but was never adopted.

“We need to reform federal higher education aid programs to put incoming, low- and middle-income students back at the front of the line,” House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. “The Higher Education Act’s first mission is to improve college access for low- and middle-income students. It has drifted away from that focus over the years, at the expense of the very students it was written to serve. We’ve got to change that.”

Boehner said the bill is one that prevents the government from a scenario of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

“But under the current law, Paul is already robbing Peter,” Boehner said. “This bill will reverse that transaction—by shutting down excess subsidies to lenders and non-students, and restoring fairness in distribution of student aid.

Shannon Blosser (sblosser@popecenter.org) is a staff writer of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Chapel Hill.