Tester pushes to renew, expand and simplify college loans

by Gail Schontzler

Montana Sen. Jon Tester says he’s fighting in Washington to revive college student loans, expand federal grants for poor students and make FAFSA forms easier for students and families to file for financial aid.

Speaking at the Board of Regents meeting Friday on the Montana State University campus, Tester said investing in America’s “mental infrastructure” is crucial.

“If we don’t make sure college is affordable, we’re going to shortchange our economy going into the future,” Tester said.

When he attended the University of Great Falls in the 1970s, college education was affordable and viewed as a public good that deserved taxpayer support, Tester said.

But in later decades, it came to be seen as a private benefit, state support shrank and a greater burden was placed on students. Today, Montana students who borrow graduate with an average $27,000 in debt. Such large debts affect graduates’ job choices and futures, he said, and have a “devastating” impact on the economy.

Tester said he’s introducing a bill to expand Pell grants for low-income students. His proposal would allow Pell grants to be used year-round, including summers, would cover 15 semesters instead of 12, and would increase the maximum grant from $6,000 a year to $9,000. That’s the national average for in-state tuition at four-year colleges.

When Pell grants were created 50 years ago, they covered three-quarters of the cost of four-year college, but today they cover only one-third of the cost.

Tester said Congress let expire in September the Perkins college loan program that helps 500,000 low-income students a year, including 3,000 in Montana. The House has passed an extension, he said, but “the Senate is screwing it up.” He said he hopes Congress will reauthorize Perkins loans in a budget bill that has to be passed before Christmas.

The senator said he has been pushing the Obama administration to simplify the FAFSA form that students and their families must fill out to apply for college financial aid. Current rules require families to hurry and file their income taxes in January before they can fill out FAFSA.

Tester said that starting in 2016, the Department of Education is going to allow students to file using the previous two years’ income tax returns. That should let students know earlier how much financial aid they qualify for and help in decisions about college.

“I would have never gotten through school without my parents help,” Tester told the regents. “My kids would have never gotten through without the government’s help. We paid for a bunch of it – we couldn’t do it all.”

“Thank you for fighting for higher education in this country,” said Regents Chair Paul Tuss of Havre.

MSU President Waded Cruzado thanked Tester for helping the Bozeman campus revive the federal grant supporting its TRiO program, which assists low-income and first-generation college students and those with disabilities. Other University System leaders and regents thanked him for supporting military veterans in college, for supporting a federal grant that’s training Montana workers for skilled machinists’ jobs, and for letting student interns in his Washington office do meaningful work.

Pressed about his loyalties in Saturday’s Bobcat-Grizzly football game, Tester maintained his neutrality and loyalty to UGF.

“Go, Argos!” he said.