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NEA calls for sweeping financial aid reforms

Fulfilling the vision for higher education spelled out in an Education Department plan released Sept. 26  will require adequate funding and resources from lawmakers, said National Education Association President Reg Weaver. The report emphasizes a national commitment to need-based financial aid and better preparation of high school students, but Weaver said that making higher education accessible and affordable will require more sweeping reforms.

"This report should be a wake-up call for lawmakers who continue to cut away at financial aid and expect higher education to remain accessible and affordable," Weaver said. "We welcome the Spellings Commission’s strong recommendation for an increased commitment to need-based student aid. Yet to give the proposal teeth we need a commitment from lawmakers to provide adequate funding."

The report, "A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education," is nearly identical to the version approved by the commission last month by a vote of 18-1.

Weaver said some measures in the report, such as simplifying a financial aid form, are bandages for a gaping wound when you consider the financial aid crisis facing many families. From 1990 to 2004, the unmet financial need for families with incomes below $34,000 grew 80 percent while the wealthiest families saw financial aid packages triple. To address this disparity, NEA recommended an unprecedented effort to expand college access by overhauling the financial aid system in favor of substantial increases in need-based aid.

To meet broader higher education goals, NEA called for improving student preparation and providing more high schools with programs on adolescent literacy and dropout prevention, as well as counseling, smaller learning communities and an expansion of AP courses. NEA also cautioned against applying No Child Left Behind’s methods to higher education since the law’s focus on testing has prompted many school districts to de-emphasize and even eliminate courses in the liberal arts and humanities.

"Meeting these goals requires lawmakers to reshape how they view higher education," said Kathy Sproles, president of the National Council for Higher Education. "The benefits of higher education are much more than bigger paychecks for the graduate or a stronger economy. Higher education is key to promoting an informed citizenry and protecting our democratic society."

--NEA media release