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Lost in health care translation: education reform

Stephon Johnson | 4/12/2011, 5:26 p.m.

Words of celebration and denunciation littered the American political and social landscape after President Barack Obama signed the bill bringing health care reform to the 21st century. Shouts of socialism, threats against Democratic congressmen, claims of Armageddon and statements threatening to no longer cooperate with Democrats by Republican officials surrounded the first real triumph of the left wing since the 1960s.

But lost amongst the debate is another important part of the legislation that's slated to change many American lives, young and old, for the better.

After the Senate sent a revision bill back to the House of Representatives, President Barack Obama signed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 (HR 4872) into law at Northern Virginia Community College outside of Washington on Tuesday. Yes, the bill will completely transform how people receive health insurance coverage, but the other word in the bill's title might be just as important: education.

On Tuesday afternoon, White House Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes and John Silvanus Wilson, Jr., executive director for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, spoke with reporters about what exactly is in store for our nation's HBCUs, community colleges and students overall as a result of this bill.

"This is truly historic legislation that will help many Americans afford college," said Barnes. She also said that with the money saved by eliminating billions of dollars in annual subsidies on student loans, they can invest in students and families all over the country. The bill is slated to save $68 billion that will be diverted to student loan assistance. It's something that they've had in mind since day one of the administration.

So far, according to Barnes, since Obama was inaugurated, the averaged Pell Grant award has increased bt close to $819 dollars per individual. "The new law invests about $40 billion into Pell Grant programs to ensure that everyone who's eligible for a reward gets one," said Barnes. "We expect more than 820,000 in additional Pell Grant awards to be granted by 2020/2021," said Barnes, with "about 200,000 to African-Americans."

In the recent past, Pell Grant rewards had not increased, despite the escalating costs to attend college.

According the Barnes and Wilson, the average college graduate joins the real world with $23,000 in student loan debt. To help those in dire straits pay their loans, the legislation caps student loan payments to 10 percent of a person's income. If a person works in public service (police officer, firefighter, etc.) and pays their bills on time, the debt could be forgiven completely after 10 years. "The income-based repayment program is already in effect," said Barnes. "We're just making those terms better for individuals." Currently, the repayment cap is at 15 percent.

Hit hard by economic woes and the recent recession, some Black colleges can look forward to financial support from the Obama administration. According to Wilson, this bill will provide direct support to HBCUs, delivering $1 billion in mandatory funding to these institutions over the next two years. Similar funding will be directed to Hispanic, Asian, Tribal, Alaskan and Hawaiian-controlled colleges.