Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation Wednesday that would pour $4.6 billion into helping colleges and universities affected by the two recent hurricanes recruit and retain students and employees, with the idea that the institutions will be critical to the region's economic rehabilitation.
The sponsors of the legislation, Reps. George Miller of California and Dale Kildee of Michigan, are the top Democrats, respectively, on the House's education committee and its higher education subcommittee. Their measure  would provide up to $1.6 billion to forgive up to $2,500 a year in federal loans for full-time students from low- and middle-class backgrounds at colleges affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Students at two-year institutions would be eligible for a total of up to $5,000 and those at four-year campuses could see up to $10,000 in forgiven loans.
The Democrats' legislation would also make available up to $3 billion in one-time grants to affected colleges themselves to recruit and retain students and faculty and staff members. The sponsors say the grants could be used for a range of purposes: providing need-based aid or room and board for students, say, or paying professors and staff members or developing temporary housing for them.
"Our plan will help students and colleges affected by Katrina and Rita to quickly get back to the business of learning and teaching, and will assist the Gulf Coast’s plan to revitalize its economy and culture,” Miller said in a news release.
Added Rep. Artur Davis, an Alabama Democrat who represents some of the affected areas: “The devastation in the Gulf Coast is so great that it will be very difficult for many of these campuses to reopen without significant assistance – particularly historically black colleges and universities, many of which have been devastated by the disasters – and we ought to help provide that assistance right away.”
Not surprisingly, college officials welcomed the proposal. “Providing students and their families economic incentives to enroll in our schools sends just the right signal of hope to New Orleans," said Marvalene Hughes, president of Dillard University. "Namely, that Americans of all stripes and backgrounds are ready to come to New Orleans to study, grow and enjoy our renewed cultural life. We can and will rebuild.”
College officials have been frustrated with the relative lack of money that have been or would be made available to higher education in the various hurricane-cleanup measures that have already been enacted or that Congress and the Bush administration are crafting now. While the Democrats' proposal Wednesday would go a long way toward satisfying those concerns, its prospects are uncertain, given the many competing Katrina-related demands in an already tight federal fiscal environment.