As Congress looks to cut up to $50 billion in spending, education and student groups are complaining that college financial aid will take the biggest hit.

House Republican leaders have ordered the committee that oversees federal student aid to find more cuts than any other committee – about $18 billion. On Wednesday, the House Education and Workforce Committee approved a Republican proposal designed to cut spending on student aid by $14.5 billion over the next five years.

Those cuts may eventually be watered down, but the proposals have alarmed education groups, who call them the biggest in the history of federal student aid and are lobbying fiercely to stave them off. Advocacy groups have been encouraging students to pressure lawmakers by calling an 800 number, trying to replicate a successful 1995 lobbying effort.

Their message has been somewhat undermined, however, because most of the proposed savings would come from cuts in government subsidies to private institutions that loan students money. That’s something some education groups have wanted for years – although they called for the savings to be plowed directly back into education. Now they’re worried the money will go to deficit reduction.

Students also could pay an indirect price for the subsidy cuts if they cause private lenders to get out of the student loan business. That could mean less choice and available funding for students.

“We need to secure the long-term future of the federal student loan programs, and we can only accomplish that by placing them on a more solid financial footing,” said Rep. John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the committee.

In a news conference Tuesday, five college presidents said federal aid programs are urgently short of funds. The maximum Pell Grant – the government’s chief aid program for low-income students – has been frozen at $4,050 for the last four years, covering less and less of the rapidly rising price of college each year, they noted.

“Already there’s so much unmet need in the federal loan system that additional money saved should go back to serve the students who need it,” said Jenn Brown, organizing director of the United States Student Association.

The stakes are particularly high because the negotiations are tied up with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which would lay out the policies governing federal student aid for years to come.

The Senate version would devote $8 billion in savings to new grants for low-income students. That would be welcomed by education groups, but they are worried the proposal will not survive reconciliation with the House version.

The House proposal does include some new fees for student borrowers, though Boehner said students would see a net decline in fees over the next five years.

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AP-ES-10-26-05 1804EDT

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