Effective on July 1, 2006, it will be more difficult for U.S. students to both become eligible for and borrow federally subsidized student loans, due to legislation signed by President Bush in February 2006. Known as the Budget-Deficit Reduction Bill, it wipes out $12 billion from the federal student loan program. The interest rates will climb to a fixed rate of 6.8 % for a student applying for a federal loan, referred to as the Stafford Loan program, with a capped rate of 8.5% for parents applying on behalf of their child, known as PLUS loans, also subject to additional variable rates. Many parents are considering home equity loans as an alternative, which provide far lower borrowing interest rates.
But with college tuition rates rising each year sometimes more than double the rate of inflation, it is becoming more and more impossible for the middle class to afford a college education. With the federal loan limit for years now remaining at $20,000.00 per school year, it requires many to apply for private bank loans in addition to the federal loan. Many students take as many as seven years to complete an undergraduate degree as they must work full-time at low-paying jobs, in order to afford tuition and living expenses, thus delaying their ascendance into the permanent work force.
According to the Department of Education, as many as 400,000 U.S. students each year forego a higher education entirely, dissuaded by tuition costs and fear of the inability to repay college loans. In the last several years, due to declining interest rates, students were able to consolidate their student loans in order to lower the rates on previous accruing loans. With the new legislation, the fixed rate will preclude them from doing so in the future, regardless of a decline again in interest rates.
The higher education dilemma in the U.S. is rather complex and multi-faceted, however, and universities have already begun to look to other resources in order to fill their coffers by going abroad. That brings us to the present immigration bill making its way through the U.S. Senate which is a far more liberal version than the U.S. House of Representatives’ bill which passed at the end of 2005. Buried in the text of the Senate bill is a restructuring of the student visa process, which was largely slowed down after September 11, 2001 and eventually put under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security by 2003.
In April 2005, President Bush met with King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia at his Crawford, TX ranch. At such time, they made an agreement to encourage more Saudi students to receive their undergraduate educations in the U.S. Presently, there are approximately 5,000 Saudi Arabian students studying in U.S. colleges and universities and 15,000 applications in the pipeline, although confirming the exact figures is one momentous task, if not impossible to find.
The deal which King Abdullah proposed to President Bush was to allow 5,000 students per year the opportunity to study in the U.S., with all tuition costs footed by the Saudi Arabian government. The scholarship program, which was not publicly announced by either the White house or the Saudi Embassy, was an attempt for the Saudi government to fast-track the student visa program to which the administration has now agreed.
Of importance, and publicly disclosed and lauded by Maura Harty, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs, when attending the U.S. University Presidents Summit on International Education, - a two-day forum to promote international education and hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in January 2006 - is that the system to expedite the student visa application process has been a top priority since 9/11. She remarked that 500 new consular positions have been added since 9/11; negotiations extended reciprocity agreements reducing the number of times a student must renew or reapply for a visa; directing all U.S. embassies and consulates to put student and exchange visitors at the head of the line when scheduling visa interviews.
Also of note, is that during the 2004-2005 school year, there were 565,039 foreign students enrolled in institutions of higher learning in the U.S., meaning, there now are that many fewer slots for American students when applying to college. But Harty adds, “We do not want to lose a single foreign student and we don’t want them to miss the beginning of school, so the State Department has made processing of student and exchange visitor visas a priority at every post.”
And alarmingly so in a post-9/11 world, Harty states that “Some 97.5% visa applications are processed within two days, and that the screening process for the 2.5% visa applicants subject to special screening requirements for security reasons has been streamlined, typically taking one week to two weeks.” If true, Americans can only dream that other government services flowed so quickly and efficiently for them. In contrast, U.S. students applying for federal loans must wait months to find out the status of their applications and whether or not they will be able to afford the school year’s tuition.
But at the heart of the proposed expansion of the student visa program is another issue embedded in the Senate’s immigration bill which would raise considerably the amount of H1-B visas allowed, which are allotted to foreign workers to work in U.S. industry on a supposed temporary basis. Beginning in Fiscal Year 2006, the amount of such visas were limited to 65,000 but an additional 20,000 were eventually added, at the 11th hour, for foreigners who graduated from U.S. graduate and Ph.D. programs. In the new bill, measures call for doubling the number of skilled worker temporary visas to 115,000 per year with an option of raising the cap 20% more each subsequent year.
And in a new visa category known as the F-4 visa, students pursuing advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics would be granted permanent U.S. residence if they find a job in their field. They would only be required to pay a fee of $1,000.00. The rallying cries from such notables as Microsoft Chairman, Bill Gates, and Sun Microsystems CEO, Scott McNealy, have made it clear that they desperately need the government to increase the number of H1-B visas. But telling, as Microsoft’s Manager for Federal Affairs, Marland Buckner, states, “It’s in the best interests of Microsoft and we believe in the best interest of national competitiveness from an innovation standpoint, to bring as many smart people to the U.S. as possible.” Bill Gates wants no restrictions at all on H1-B visas.
But according to Ron Hira, Vice President of IEEE-USA, an organization representing 225,000 electrical and computer engineers, says, “Many U.S. companies don’t even bother to recruit Americans because they can find foreigners willing to work longer hours for less pay.” But with business and science leaders focusing almost exclusively on loosening laws in order to acquire foreign talent, they are seemingly turning their backs on educating Americans first, necessary to maintain a thriving, innovative economy for Americans.
Much like all other sectors of our government as well as commercial industry, both lawmakers and CEO’s myopically concentrate on the bottom line, while the U.S. educational system is being systematically abandoned and essentially dismantled. By not providing future livelihoods for future generations of Americans all in the name of globalism, the U.S. may find itself incurably behind, not only in terms of innovation but in terms of a basic standard of living. How can we expect our students to compete with such an agenda if they are no longer the top priority?