Senator Begich discusses federal student aid and voting during visit to campus

Melissa Takaaze/Sun Star Reporter
November 20, 2012

Senator Mark Begich was on campus for a Veteran’s Day speech and a talk with Professor Sherry Wall’s business class on Monday, Nov. 12. The Sun Star caught up with Senator Begich to talk about federal aid for university students and the politics of voting.

There is no doubt that higher education carries a hefty price tag.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010-2011, a full-time student  at a public 4-year university living on campus and paying in-state tuition paid an average of $20,100 per year.  At a private institution, the average total cost was $39,800. After years of tuition increases, some as high as 40 percent, public universities in California, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire and Arizona have proposed a tuition freeze in exchange for more state funding.

Although tuition freezes might be helpful, the cost of higher education is still expensive, and many students pay for school using loans and grants from federal financial aid.  Unfortunately, grant amounts have not kept up with increasing tuition, and  the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says accumulative student loan debt is now $1 trillion.

Begich, a former member of the Alaska Commission on Post-Secondary Education, highlighted the 2012 federal renewal of the 3.4 percent interest rate for new subsidized Stafford loans. If the bill had died, the interest rate would have doubled to 6.8 percent. In a U.S. Senate floor  speech in May 2012, Begich estimated that increasing the rate to 6.8 percent would “increase the average cost for students by $1,000 over the course of a loan.” He stressed the importance of accessible and affordable education by stating, “We are in a globally competitive economy, and we need to make sure our kids are well educated and have access to education, which means affordability.”
During the talk, he pointed out that students can now borrow directly from the Department of Education and spoke positively about income based repayment that will benefit many recent graduates by capping payments according to income and family size.  Addressing the high cost of education, Begich said the growing availability of online degree programs may lead to cost stabilization.

Compared with other U.S. public universities, tuition at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is relatively low despite having more than doubled in the last decade. For the 2002-2003 year, an in-state UAF sophomore taking 15 credits paid $1,230 for tuition. A current UAF sophomore taking 15 credits pays approximately $2,475 for tuition. In September, the Board of Regents approved tuition increases ranging from 2 to 4 percent for the 2013-2014 school year, which will increase the current tuition rate for 15 credits from $2,475 to about $2,527.

Shelly DeWilde, a full-time student and UA Scholar, says UAF tuition is “reasonable” compared with out-of-state universities.  She will graduate with no debt thanks to the UA Scholarship, financial help from her parents and income from work.

Gridlock is a reality of the political process, and the student loan interest bill almost stalled because Republicans and Democrats initially disagreed on a funding source.  Determined by the number of Republicans and Democrats elected to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the balance of power affects the passage of bills because the party with the most elected officials has the majority of votes; therefore a few votes in a state election can be a critical factor in determining the composition of Congress.

Voter turnout in Alaska’s 2012 General election was less than 60 percent.  When asked if he had any concerns about electronic voting, Begich said it was important to have a paper backup system to ensure accuracy.  He said a larger issue is ensuring that Americans are not denied a vote–an allusion to the nation-wide voter identification debate. Decrying the fact that some voters were turned away at the polls, Begich noted that it was a civil rights issue of this generation. He said that all people should have the equal right to vote, “No matter who you are or where you live.”


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