In a direct challenge to the Bush administration, leading House Democrats have proposed legislation to make all high school graduates eligible for federally guaranteed student loans, regardless of their family income. The measure would eliminate needs-testing for student loans and ease it slightly for direct grants.
But the sponsors offered no specifics on how they might pay for the estimated $1-billion to $1.5-billion such a change would cost the government each year. Under budget rules, any spending increase must be offset by a spending cut elsewhere or a tax increase.
Democrats and Republicans alike have been increasingly concerned about "middle-class meltdown" as the cost of a college education continues to soar, especially at private institutions. Federal aid, whether grants or loans, is concentrated primarily on the poor under existing law.
"This bill will make real progress in putting a college education within reach of middle-income families," said House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Currently, he said, "the rich can send their kids to any college they want" and "the desperately poor who make under $10,000 a year can get some help, but not enough."
The proposal, unveiled by Gephardt and Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., a senior member of the Education and Labor Committee, runs directly counter to President Bush's higher education policy.
The administration is urging Congress to cut back aid to middle-income students in order to make larger grants available to students from the very poorest families.
For example, Bush wants to increase the maximum Pell grant to $3,700 per year from $2,400 by dropping 400,000 students from the rolls and focusing the grants on those from families earning less than $10,000.
Congressional Democrats see in their quarrel with Bush an opening to the middle class. "The Democrats disagree with this policy of indifference," Gephardt said. "Children of American workers deserve the same opportunities as children of the rich."