Last night, the Senate took the first step toward making college more affordable with passage of the Higher Education Reconciliation Act. However, more action is needed to expand access to college, protect students from bad actors in the student loan industry, and provide students with clear information they need to understand and manage their debts.

The Senate approved the Higher Education Reconciliation Act by a vote of 78 to 18.

The cost of college has risen dramatically, and at the same time the need for a college education has never been greater. It is our responsibility to ensure that the investment our students and families make in terms of time and money is a good one, and that they are confident there will be financial aid to assist them.

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Providing additional need-based grant aid is a critical component of increasing access and affordability. I am pleased that this bill does this by increasing Pell grants, and by expanding the ability of working students to receive Pell grants. This is critically important as the student population in our colleges becomes less and less traditional.

The reconciliation package includes tradeoffs between loan programs and need-based aid that will help address the challenges of the rising costs of post-secondary education while saving about $1 billion for deficit reduction. The bill raises the authorized level for a maximum federal Pell grant award for low income students to $5,400 for academic year 2008-09, with additional increases through 2012.

I am pleased that the Senate will consider the Higher Education Amendments of 2007, S.1642, next week. That bill will restore students’ trust in student loan programs by holding lenders and schools to a code of conduct, ensuring that the agreements between lenders and universities work to serve the best interests of students. It will also ensure that students and parents have the information they need about the costs of college and the financial impact of their loans so they can make sound decisions about their futures.

This is the second time in as many Congresses we have been on the brink of systemic reform of federal higher education programs. I do not want to squander yet another opportunity to make these programs more efficient as well as more effective. Our challenge is not only to improve access to higher education but to ensure that the quality of our system of higher education is not compromised.

We need to enact both pieces of legislation because America’s students must have all the tools they need to complete higher education and to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to become competitive in a 21st century economy.