PELL GRANT HURRICANE AND DISASTER RELIEF ACT -- (House of Representatives - September 07, 2005)
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Mr. BOEHNER. Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong support of this bill to provide assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina whose higher education aspirations have been disrupted as a result of the tragic events of the last 10 days. This bill represents a first small step in our efforts in the weeks and months to come that we hope will make a critical difference for students and families as they work to rebuild their homes and their lives, and hopefully are able to return to higher education.
I want to thank the gentleman from Florida (Mr. Keller) for developing this bill and for recognizing the forgotten struggles of students forced to withdraw from college as a result of a natural disaster.
The premise behind this bill is very simple. It says that if a student is forced to withdraw from higher education because of a natural disaster, that student will not have to repay their Pell grant that has already been awarded and perhaps already spent. The gentleman from Florida (Mr. Keller) has been developing this legislation for months, in large part because of what he saw in last year's hurricane in Florida and how it impacted his constituents enrolled in higher education and those that had Pell grants.
The Higher Education Act already allows waiver authority for the Secretary of Education to exercise in case of a natural disaster declared by the President. However, that authority exists for student loans and not for Pell grants, a discrepancy that can have a significant impact on disadvantaged college students.
Pell grants serve some of the most disadvantaged students enrolled in higher education. In fiscal year 1999, an estimated nearly 45 percent of dependent Pell grant recipients had total parental income of below $20,000, and more than 90 percent had total income of less than $40,000.
Pell grants are a need-based aid that students do not have to pay back. However, when students withdraw from higher education, they may have to return a portion of their Pell grant aid.
Unfortunately, in the case of a natural disaster, there is no mechanism for the Secretary to waive that requirement, which may force students who have already lost their homes and communities to actually pay back the Pell grant funds that they had been awarded.
I am pleased that my committee included this provision in a comprehensive Higher Education Act reform package approved in July. Today, however, we have an opportunity to act quickly to ensure that students in the gulf coast region get the relief they need and they get it soon. This proposal was adopted with bipartisan support in the committee, by a voice vote, during subcommittee markup of our higher education reform package; and I expect similar support today as my colleagues on both sides of the aisle join together to provide relief to college students impacted by this unprecedented natural disaster.
Once again, I want to thank the gentleman from Florida (Mr. Keller), the bill's sponsor, and urge my colleagues to join me in support of the bill.
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