Bingaman visits, tours UNM-VC

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Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) visited Valencia County recently, seemingly on a bit of a farewell tour of his district as his retirement looms at the end of this year.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) visited Valencia County recently, seemingly on a bit of a farewell tour of his district as his retirement looms at the end of this year.

During his time here, he made a stop at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus, where he talked with staff and students about their needs and concerns, and toured the campus's nursing teaching facility.

UNM-VC Executive Director Dr. Alice Letteney asked that if Bingaman left any "notes on his desk" for his predecessor they include mention of the branch campus.

"We want to thank you for the Title V funds," Letteney told the senator. "We have done so much — they helped with our STEM programs. We have really taken advantage of federal funding. You are known as the 'education senator.'"

Letteney also asked that the campus's concerns about a proposed increase interest rate for subsidized student loans be made note of so that whoever comes after Bingaman will know.

Bill Bloom, the campus's financial aid director, said since UNM-VC is in a low income, rural area and many students use the money to subsidize their education costs and living expenses.

"We see a lot of students accessing that funding. Interest rates increasing is going to have an impact," Bloom said. "Financial aid access is important. Forty-four percent of our students accessing student aid are using a federal loan."

Bloom said many students on the threshold of being eligible for a Pell Grant often turn to subsidized student loans.

"They take subsidized loan because it is less impact on their finances," he said. "It will be harder to sell if interest rates go up."

Letteney pointed out that the campus transfers between 200 and 250 students to the main campus in Albuquerque each year. With the higher tuition and fees at the main campus, Letteney said the increased interested rates would have "significantly more impact."

She also told the senator that the campus "missed" the summer Pell Grant program. Letteney said when it was active last year, 72 percent of students attending summer classes were using the grants.

"We know the model gets students through their schooling quickly," she said. "With summer Pell going away, having to wait out the summer hurts them."

Victor Escobar, student government president, said there was a lot of anxiety among students over the loss of the summer Pell funding and the ability to expedite their education by attending the summer session.

"The numbers have dropped significantly for summer enrollment," Escobar said.

Bingaman asked if the summer grants were a separate from the traditional Pell Grants for the spring and fall semesters.

Letteney said the summer Pell was a separate federal appropriation made two years ago.

"We still have Pell for the academic year. If a student budgeted, they could use those funds for summer," she said. "But Congress passed a special allowance for summer Pell Grants."

Letteney also asked Bingaman to push for reconsideration on what's called "ability to benefit." Basically, if a student does not have a high school diploma or a GED, they can't qualify for a Pell Grant.

"But they could pass the entrance exam. When they took that away, the 'ability to benefit' their ability to qualify for Pell was gone," she said. "That funding is a big deal."


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