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Fiscal cliff threatens to set back higher education

Updated: January 31, 2013 6:40AM

When discussing the “fiscal cliff” that is threatening our national economy, it’s important to understand how falling over the cliff will hurt college students — and our state’s job prospects.

If Congress fails to act on President Barack Obama’s plan, student aid experts predict middle- and low-income students will pay about $5,000 more per year for college, before rising tuition, fees and other costs are even taken into account.

This extra $5,000 could force thousands of students to “stop out” of college to work and save money for their next tuition bill, delaying the time it takes to earn a certificate or degree needed to land more than a minimum-wage job.

Each deferred semester and every undereducated worker threatens our state’s ability to attract and retain the quality employers we need to stay competitive in the 21st century. It’s not just Indiana we have to worry about when it comes to corporate headquarters, but India.

What exactly is at risk in the higher-education fiscal cliff come fall of 2013? According to the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs, that $5,000 tab is generated from several devastating reductions, including:

◆ 50,000 work study students could lose their jobs, or 680,000 could see cuts to their hours and wages;

◆ Fees on Stafford and PLUS loans could increase, meaning undergrads, graduate students and parents will have to take on more debt to cover expenses;

◆ The Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants could be slashed $57 million, which translates to 110,000 students losing the funds or more than 1 million receiving smaller amounts.

While the well-known Pell Grant program is exempt from sequestration next academic year, it has no such protection for 2014-15 and a projected $6 billion to $9 billion shortfall. That math doesn’t bode well for college-bound students.

Congress has an opportunity to forge a bipartisan agreement to avert the fiscal cliff and prioritize students. Until that happens, the message to students is dire: You could be priced out of school.

This is a real concern for the students who attended my College Affordability Summits across the state this fall.

Take Nekira Cooper, a University of Illinois-Springfield sophomore from the South Side of Chicago, who cobbles together state and federal grants, private scholarship dollars, and loans so she can study criminal justice — during the hours she’s not working her retail and work study office jobs.

Or consider Noemi Rodriguez, who moved from the Back of the Yards in Chicago to DeKalb’s Northern Illinois University. She also combines several forms of assistance and work study to pay for her nursing degree, while she volunteers as a tutor and interns summers at a children’s hospital — the extra efforts she’s putting in to compete for a good job.

When you hear the news about the fiscal cliff, I urge you and our representatives in Congress to think about Nekira and Noemi and all of the students who depend on work-study jobs, low-interest loans and grants to earn a chance at a better life. And think of how our already struggling state will operate if these young women and the ranks of our employees hold only high school degrees.

As it stands, a little more than 40 percent of our adult workers hold college credentials, and we still don’t have enough qualified employees to fill more than 100,000 chronically unfilled jobs in our state.

If Congress takes the country over the cliff, then Illinois students, our college completion rates, and the ability to fill existing jobs and attract new high-wage employers goes right with it.

But I share Sen. Richard Durbin’s optimism that President Obama and congressional leaders can still reach a deal that will pull students back from that brink and build a better education system for all.

Sheila Simon is the lieutenant governor of Illinois.

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