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Tuesday February 27, 2001

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ASA bill passes first committee

By Eric Swedlund

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Student effort to double state's portion of financial aid faces another hearing today

PHOENIX - An ASA-initiated bill to double the state's contribution to need-based financial aid cleared its first hurdle yesterday with approval from a House panel.

The student push got state lawmakers to approve an addition of about $2 million in each of the next two years. The bill passed the House of Representatives Education Committee unanimously.

An identical bill in the Senate is scheduled for hearings in the Appropriations Committee this morning and the Education Committee Thursday.

Paul Peterson, executive director of the Arizona Students' Association, said the student lobbying group considers it a necessity to increase free aid to needy students.

Peterson said students are facing high student-loan debt because of a shift away from free aid and rising tuition costs.

"It's almost inevitable tuition will go up," Peterson said. "This is to address students on the bubble."

The average resident student at an Arizona public university graduates with about $18,000 in student loan debt, Peterson said, which hurts low-income students the most.

"We do not have a lot of free aid," Peterson said. "The shift is from grants and scholarships to loans."

The Arizona Board of Regents financial-aid trust fund takes 1 percent of tuition from each student - about $20 - and the state matches that amount, which totals about $2 million. Half of the fund is retained each year, and half is given to low-income and minority students as free aid.

During the fund's 10 years, Peterson said more than 19,000 students have received a total of more than $16 million in free aid.

Charlene Ledet, University of Arizona lobbyist, said UA President Peter Likins supports the bill because student financial aid has been one of his cornerstones in improving the accessibility of the university.

Oubai Shahbandar, speaking before the committee on behalf of the Associated Students of Arizona State University, said low-income students and families can get stuck in a "vicious cycle of debt" because of high student loans.

"As college costs continue to rise, families are forced to borrow more money," he said. "Lower-income students and families are hurt the most."

Increasing the state's contribution to the need-based financial aid fund would benefit Arizona's working families who struggle with rising college costs, he said.

"Student aid is institutional aid, securing the immediate future, but it will come to impact the community for years to come," Shahbandar said. "Education afforded by all will be a profit to all."

Rep. Jim Carruthers, R-Yuma, a co-sponsor of the bill, said taking care of the state's students is very important.

"I firmly believe investing in students is investing in the future of Arizona," he said.

Student Regent Mary Echeverria told the committee that despite Arizona's relatively low tuition, the state lags behind its peers in funding student financial aid.

"We're trying to make up for the level of student grant assistance that exists now," Echeverria said. "More and more, the Legislature is starting to understand that education is an investment rather than a cost."

An amendment to the bill was adopted that would set the appropriation at $2.355 million for fiscal year 2001-2002 and $2.455 million for fiscal year 2002-2003.