By Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D.
President, Misericordia University
The holiday season came a little early for the millions of collegians who rely on an array of federal grants, loans and programs to realize their dreams of earning college degrees.
Our federal legislators completed and passed the $1.1 trillion omnibus tax and spending bill shortly before their holiday recess. The bill included a number of items that will support students nationwide and open a gateway to future economic success and responsible citizenship for an increasing number of capable students.
Higher education has a responsibility to provide access to as many capable students as possible. We do that through an array of institutions ranging from trade schools to community colleges to regional universities and research universities. Students receive aid directly in many cases, providing them with the ability to choose the type and place they will study.
The American Opportunity Tax Credit, which is widely used by middle class families, was made permanent. This benefit provides a $2,500 tax credit against tuition expenses for single filers making less than $80,000, and married and joint filers with incomes less than $160,000. In previous years, the benefit was extended one year at a time, creating confusion as to whether it would be in place for future students. By making the credit permanent, federal legislators have signaled that the investment made in a student's education is a continuing priority.
Given that the majority of students and families fall within the qualification ranges, the tax credit will support increased access for students nationwide. Coupled with the elimination of above-the-line tuition deduction, legislators have found a way to simplify the tax code and support middle-class students.
The Pell Grant, which is the single largest direct subsidy for students with a high level of financial need, was preserved. And, for students with the least resources, the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) and federal work study levels also were saved. Both the SEOG and work study program were possible casualties of the desire to make financial aid simpler by eliminating programs. Simplicity, it seems, had been twisted to mean hurting those who have the least, as there did not appear to be any proposals to take the money that was saved and apply it directly to student need.
Two other programs that serve low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities also were preserved. GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) and TRIO, a federal outreach program, also were fully funded. These programs support partnerships between institutions and community organizations that support disadvantaged youth. Together, we provide programming for students in middle and high schools so they can be ready for a college education. As we seek to include all who want a college education, these early intervention programs provide the support that many students need.
The federal government also correctly reversed course in extending the Perkins Loan for another two years. Perkins Loans are only available to undergraduates who have exhausted their subsidized and unsubsidized federal loan eligibility. That, in common language, means these are the very students who have the highest need to borrow in order to complete their educations.
As a loan program, the funds and interest when repaid are loaned to another student. With academic institutions providing matching funding, this is an efficient way to encourage increased educational attainment. Two years is a solid start, but without additional action the program will again face the chopping block. Hopefully, Congress will make the program permanent in the near future to stop the nonsensical annual political challenges to this worthy program.
Thankfully, the federal government has supported students and their families, at least through the next general election cycle. As a nation, we are strengthened by our young adults who have the capacity, drive and will to make our nation prosperous, safe, and ready for an exciting future.