Posted at 12:36 p.m., April 13, 2015


A mountain of debt, a sea of responsibilities

Students know the feeling. They test the water; it feels warm, and they jump in. Little do they know by the time they swim to the other side, a giant tsunami is headed toward them, ready to crash. This feeling of drowning is all too common among recent college graduates as student loan debt mounts.

The average student will accumulate $28,400 in debt by the time he leaves college, according to the presidential memorandum regarding the Student Aid Bill of Rights, released March 10. Even more troubling is one in eight will default on his student loans just three years after leaving college.

With more than 40 million Americans being weighted down by student loan debt, that’s five million people who will default. That leaves the other 35 million barely treading water, just trying to stay afloat.

A lifesaver in the sea of debt

That’s life for many college students across the United States as the pressure to finish and start a career rises, but the tide rises with it. With this increased course load comes the increased debt. Hope isn’t lost, however, with the re-introduction of the year-round Pell Grant, so students can take summer classes and even out their course load without having to pay extra out of pocket. This bill is called the Affordability for Constant and Continual Education to Enhance Student Success Act or, in short, the All-Year ACCESS Act.

The All-Year ACCESS Act would give the U.S. Secretary of Education the power to award students a summer Pell Grant if the student has received a Pell Grant for an award year and is enrolled in a program of study for one or more additional payment periods during the same award year that are not otherwise covered by the Pell Grant.

The Pell Grant is free money given to students from the federal government based almost entirely on need. The amount is based off the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which calculates an estimated family contribution (EFC) based on tax information and other factors. The EFC is then subtracted from the set maximum award amount. The remaining number, if any, is how much money a student will receive for college. This does not have to be paid back.

The bill requires a student to be enrolled at least half-time for more than one academic year or more than two semesters during a single award year.

The bill also limits the total amount awarded to a student for the award year to 150 percent of the maximum Pell Grant. In other words, the maximum Pell Grant is currently $5,775 for the 2015-16 academic year, which is $2,887.50 a semester. But if the Pell Grant were extended to include the summer, the maximum would be 150 percent of that, which is $8,662.50, and still the same amount a semester.

This kind of bill isn’t new, however. In 2008, a similar bill titled the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) was signed into law. President George W. Bush initially proposed it in 2005. This law made year-round Pell Grants available and put an 18-semester cap on the number of awards a student could receive. The additional grants were available to full-time as well as part-time students and even certificate-seeking students.

During the downturn in the economy, it looked to be exactly what the country needed for students to complete their degrees faster and push them into their careers. Until 2011, that is.

The bucks stop here

When President Barack Obama heard funding would need to be raised an additional $11.2 billion, on top of the more than $30 billion already funded, he immediately shut down the HEOA after only one year of its use.

His reaction made sense initially. Let’s be honest: Who has an extra $11.2 billion laying around? It’s a substantial amount of money, so large actually the brain can’t even process it, but Obama failed to take into account the entire reason the bill was passed in the first place—to speed up completion.

Yes, with more than 1.2 million students using the grant for an additional semester, the cost would be higher for a few years. It’s inevitable. However, as those students complete faster than they would have, the amount of money the grant uses in the long run would have decreased, according to “Myths &

Misunderstandings: The Undeserved Legacy of Year-Round Pell Grants.” If he had just waited a few more years as students earned their degrees and stopped using the Pell Grants sooner, the money would have eventually leveled back to close to what it originally was. Obama jumped the gun, however, and college students were left once again wondering how to pay for their summer classes or fall behind on credits.

On March 10, however, Obama signed a Student Aid Bill of Rights. This Bill of Rights was created to ensure quality service with a new complaint system, to help students repay loans and to analyze student debt trends by state.

He also made a bold proposal in January called America’s College Promise, which would offer free community college to almost all students. But this idea was far from perfect and would take years to implement and fix the many kinks.

In the meantime, focusing on passing the All-Year ACCESS Act seems to be the way to go for fast relief of the growing student debt problem. Sadly, little progress has been made on the bill. On Jan. 9, it was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. It hasn’t been looked at since.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said: “I support measures to help students attend college and universities, like Pell Grants and student loans…I will continue to work towards making a college education attainable and affordable for all who wish to pursue it.”

Work to be done

So, Wingspan believes more immediate action needs to be taken on the All-Year ACCESS Act. Although Lummis approves of the bill and will likely vote in favor, it is not being pushed through fast enough.

Because it is so beneficial for students, Wingspan believes Laramie County Community College’s campus organizations such as Student Government Association need to take a more active role in the government as its name implies. This would include lobbying Wyoming’s congressional delegation and making sure they know Wyoming students have a lot to gain from the All-Year ACCESS Act. Even an official written recommendation from this group as well as from the LCCC Faculty Senate would hold weight and get the point across that students not only want this but also need this to help stay afloat.

Wingspan also wants LCCC trustees, the Wyoming Association of Community College Trustees (WACCT), the Wyoming Education Association (WEA) and the Wyoming Community College Commissioners (WCCC) to pass resolutions in support of the bill.

Every little bit of assistance could help students swim out of the sea of debt.

All-Year ACCESS Act

FAFSA website

Federal Pell Grants