HIGHER EDUCATION OPPORTUNITY ACT--CONFERENCE REPORT -- (Senate - July 31, 2008)
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Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I rise to speak briefly on the conference report to the Higher Education Opportunity Act. The reauthorization of this act, the Higher Education Act, has taken 5 years and thousands of hours to complete. I congratulate Senator Kennedy and Senator Enzi for guiding us through passage of the Senate bill and then through a long and somewhat contentious conference process. Their leadership has brought us to an achievement of which we can all be proud. It is a bipartisan product that will have a positive impact on the lives of American students.
I also acknowledge and thank Senator Mikulski for the good work she has done, stepping in for Senator Kennedy during his period of absence, in order to help us resolve these last issues.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act includes many provisions that will benefit students and student loan borrowers in my home State of Alaska. One provision of which I am particularly proud will assist members of the military, particularly those who are in the lowest ranks. It will help them and help their spouses and their children to afford college or job training.
I had the opportunity last winter to visit Fort Richardson, outside of Anchorage. I met with the spouses of the deployed soldiers who were over in Iraq. It was kind of a townhall meeting. I was there to ask them what I could do to help make their lives a little bit easier, help them get through the long winter. One of them told me that the one thing that was keeping her from being able to afford to go to college was the money that the military pays to help offset a portion of their housing costs. The housing allowance prevented her from being eligible for a Pell grant.
Given the low rate of pay for many members of our military, particularly those in the lowest ranks, they could not afford to take on any student loan debt. So I made contact with the National Military Families Association and learned that so many military spouses are in that same position.
So what we included in this legislation, through my provision, is language that excludes the cost of the basic allowance for housing for servicemembers who live off base, as well as the value of on-base housing. We exclude that from being calculated in the final calculations for financial need.
Excluding the basic housing allowance, which in the vast majority of cases does not completely cover military families' housing costs, and the value of on-base housing will benefit the least well paid members of our military and their spouses, whether they be privates, seaman apprentices, lance corporals, airmen--those folks whose base pay is less than $35,000 per year. While they are off defending our country at war, we want to be able to help the spouses and family members who remain at home.
I am very pleased to know that this wonderful woman I had the privilege to meet last winter, and potentially thousands like her, will have a better chance now of being able to attend college or obtain job training.
Another provision I was pleased to participate in and to author authorizes a program dedicated to improving science, technology, and engineering and mathematics education, with a focus on Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students.
There are three programs in Alaska, Washington State, and Hawaii. They have had outstanding success using an innovative model to recruit and support Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students through engineering, science, and technology programs. These are available at the University of Alaska, the University of Hawaii, and also through the Maui Economic Development Board.
The programs' graduation rate is phenomenal. By identifying the students who have an interest in math, science, and technology while they are still in middle school, helping them to graduate from high school with the courses they need to be successful in those disciplines in college, and then mentoring them throughout the college program, these entities have helped so many of our young students, Natives and the non-Natives alike, to really succeed in these demanding and high-need fields.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act includes many provisions of which Members of the Senate can be proud. Suffice it to say that before the fall semester begins at many colleges around the country, we will have authorized: improvements to the Federal Pell grant; changes designed to help colleges and textbook publishers take steps to make the textbooks more affordable; increased and improved information about the cost of college and financial aid; rules intended to increase students' safety on campus; and greater State involvement in and accountability to the public for the success of our teacher preparation programs.
There are so many provisions in this legislation that I think we have to be proud of, and I thank my colleagues for their good work and certainly urge all Members to support this legislation. And my thanks to those who have led this through the process: Senator Kennedy, Senator Enzi, and Senator Mikulski.
I yield the floor.
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