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More Needed to Meet Pell's Goal

Former Senator Claiborne Pell sponsored legislation creating the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant program, now known as "Pell Grants". These grants provided direct aid to college students from low-income families. By the time he retired from the Senate in 1997, the grant program had helped more than 54 million low and middle-income students.

I was one of the students that graduated from college thanks to these grants. I was only the second person in my family to graduate from college and the first to get an advanced degree. Pell believed that educational opportunity should be within the reach of any person willing to work for it. These grants also meant that those of us who graduated from college by the early eighties did not have large student loan debt as we began our careers.

Current college students are not as fortunate. Now, most students start their professional life with major student loan and credit card debt. According to a recent USA Today article, a growing number of students have $20,000 or more in student-loan debt.

Some of you may feel little sympathy for these young folks when you see them lining up to buy the latest techie gizmo or video game. But unless you have a kid in college like I do, you may not know that college costs have skyrocketed.

Average annual tuition at public four-year colleges and universities was almost $6,000 in 2006, up 268% from 1976, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Although total federal student aid has grown dramatically, so has the number of people attending college.

A College Board survey found that 67% of high school graduates enrolled in college in 2004 compared to only 49% in 1972. As a result, student grants cover only 39% of college costs, compared with nearly 80% in the mid-1970's.

Now add in a highly competitive job market, rising housing and food costs, increased debt from loans and credit cards, and you can see that twenty-something's face major financial hurdles when they graduate.

This debt-for-diploma system is strangling young people right when they are starting out in life. And it is creating frustration because no matter what they do, many believe they will not be able to match their parents standard of living.

I do not think Senator Pell or anyone else could foresee these challenges thirty years ago. President-elect Obama, who was also Pell grant recipient, will be working on plans that will promote public service in exchange for tuition help, as well as increasing student aid funding.

As we continue to tell our children that a college education is a key to success, we have got to keep the door open for students from low-income families.

Like Senator Pell, I believe it is vital to our nation that we continue to invest in the future of our young people by making college more affordable--and less of a life-time financial burden that threatens to suffocate the future of not only the college grads, but our country's future as well.