THERE ARE FEW SURER WAYS to increase the gap between rich and poor than by making higher education more expensive. Yet Congress is poised to do just that. Current budget plans would deal federal student loan programs their most painful setback since their inception, limiting the opportunities for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum to build a better life.
The House last month voted to slash funding for federal student loan programs by $14.3 billion, reversing decades of expansion that have helped open the country's most expensive universities to poor and middle-class students. The House's cuts would add about $5,800 to the average $17,500 student loan debt, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The cuts couldn't come at a worse time. According to the nonprofit College Board, average tuition and fees at public universities have surged 40% over the last five years. The median family income has crept up just 16% over that period. And early this year, the U.S. Department of Education tweaked its eligibility formula for Pell Grants, an assistance program for low-income students. That eliminated aid to more than 80,000 students and reduced awards to about 1.5 million others.
To compensate, many students have increasingly turned to generous federal student loans to pay for their education. About two-thirds of college students graduate with some debt.