WASHINGTON - Without financial aid, Jennafer Crammer wouldn't be able to attend college.

A sophomore at the University of Minnesota, Crammer receives federal Pell grants and loans as well as state and university aid to pay for increasing tuition and living expenses.

This academic year, she received more than $13,000 in aid, over half from the federal government. She said she could use more aid if it were available.

"Without the financial aid, I would have no other way to pay for any classes or housing," Crammer said. "I'm completely dependent on that."

With college costs soaring and credit for students tightening, Congress is poised to deliver major new aid to students like Crammer. But opponents -- including two Republican members of Minnesota's House delegation -- say the bill calls for excessive spending.

Last month, the House overwhelmingly passed a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which has been pending since 2003 and extended several times since then. The reauthorization is designed to streamline the federal aid process.

It also aims to boost the amount available for Pell grants and increase overall federal student aid by billions of dollars.

The bill also calls for creation of a website that students and families could use to compare the cost of attending different schools, and it requires more transparency with regard to private lenders.

The Senate passed a similar bill last July, and legislators are confident that a conference committee will work out differences and the measure will be sent to President Bush's desk this spring.

The bill comes atop one signed into law by the president last year that provides $20 billion over five years to increase financial aid to students and pare interest rates on student loans. The Democratic majority in Congress calls this new bill the next step in making college more affordable.

Students like Crammer would most likely see an increase in their Pell grants and overall aid, but just how much money the bill would add depends on what comes out of the conference committee and a subsequent funding bill.

Fully funded, the House version would cost $97.4 billion over five years to the Senate's $53.6 billion.

Dissenting voices

In the House, where the bill passed 354 to 58 last month, GOP Reps. John Kline and Michele Bachmann were the only members of the Minnesota delegation to vote against it. While they supported some provisions, such as increasing Pell grants, both said spending got out of control.

"Unfortunately, I feel like they overreached," Kline said. Bachmann agreed and said the final version of the bill had several dozen new programs that were "duplicative" and "poorly targeted."

Both of Minnesota's senators supported the Senate version that passed last July on a 95-0 vote.

Separately, Sens. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., introduced a bill last summer to curb textbook costs, and such a provision was included in the House version.

"The rising costs of textbooks are a key factor in making it more expensive to attend college," Coleman said in a statement. "My legislation will help students purchase more affordable textbooks by making sure they have complete information about course requirements and enable them to purchase what they need without costly supplemental materials."

Looking at costs

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said recently that soaring costs "are blocking many qualified students from attending college and forcing many others to end their education prematurely. Student loan debt has also gotten out of control and become a crippling financial burden to so many young people and their families."

Nationally, average annual tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges and universities total about $6,200 this year. The tab is about $23,700 at private four-year institutions.

From 1995 to 2005, average tuition and fees rose 51 percent at public four-year colleges and universities and by 36 percent at private schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The median debt load was $15,500 for students who graduated from public four-year institutions and $19,400 for those at private schools.

At the University of Minnesota, in-state tuition for a full-time student this academic year is $10,084. Total estimated costs for students living on campus are $20,250, and for students living off campus with a parent, about $15,840, according to the U.

More than 72 percent of U students receive some form of financial aid, including loans, with an average of $10,869 per student. About 20 percent receive federal grants.

For students who have loans, money will become more expensive next year as the credit crunch begins to take effect among financial aid lenders, many which are scaling back because of the overall uncertainly in the credit markets.

Conrad Wilson • 202-408-2723