So What’s in the Omnibus Spending Bill on College Affordability?

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on and passed a massive $1.1 trillion spending bill by a vote of 359-67, which will fund the federal government until the end of September. The U.S. Senate followed suit on Thursday, passing the omnibus (fancy word for all-inclusive) spending bill by a vote of 72-26. On Friday, the bill headed to President Obama where he signed it into law. There are a few good chunks in the bill that will help students afford college.

For starters, the bill will provide a slight increase to Pell Grants, a program that helps thousands of low-income students afford college. It raises the maximum award next year to $5,730, which is a welcome announcement for students.

In other good news, the bill directs the U.S. Department of Education to report to Congress its plan to simplify its standards for evaluating some of the largest student loan servicers --companies that manage student borrowers’ loan accounts and process their monthly payments, including Sallie Mae and Nelnet. The decision to reexamine how the Department evaluates loan servicers is overdue. Student borrowers long have voiced their concerns about the sometimes misleading and often ambivalent practices loan servicers employ to collect and manage students’ loan payments.

There’s more. The bill will also provide $75 million in funds for the First in the World grant program, which encourages colleges and universities to try innovative approaches to lower college prices and student debt, and boost completion rates. Other aid programs, like the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Work Study programs that were cut under sequestration will see an increase of $37 million and $49 million, respectively.

So what does this all mean? That Congress is paying attention to the fact that students need an affordable path to college. There is still a great deal more that needs to be addressed to ensure that every student who wishes to attend college can do so without being bogged down by debt. But the omnibus bill offers hope that our federal policymakers are at least starting to listen.