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Lawmakers form group to focus on education costs

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Two California congressmen, Democratic Rep. Ami Bera and Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, said Thursday that they have formed a bipartisan caucus to advocate for the state's public universities and students.

Bera and Denham announced the California Public Higher Education Caucus on Thursday, consisting of 31 members of the state's congressional delegation.

In recent years, the vast majority of states have cut higher education funding as they sought to balance their budgets. A recent study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says California cut spending by $1,373 per student, adjusting for inflation, since the recession began in late 2007.

The idea for the caucus came at the request of California college students. Its members have not yet decided which specific policies the caucus will support, but the group said the broad goal is to ensure that prospective students are not priced out of attending college.

Bera, a former associate dean of admissions at the University of California Davis School of Medicine, will be focused on keeping student loan interest rates low and in funding Pell grants. He is also looking at promoting partnerships, such as one between his medical school and Kaiser Permanente that allows future internists to save money by shortening their school attendance by one year. Bera said he was able to graduate with less than $10,000 in debt through part-time work and using student loans.

“We need to make that same investment in the next generation to ensure that no student is denied the chance to pursue the American dream,” Bera said in a news release.

All but two members of the caucus are Democrats. Reps. Paul Cook and Denham are sole Republicans.

“Many of my colleagues and I agree that we must work to make student loans more accessible, support Pell grants and encourage innovative ideas in public and private higher ed,” Denham said.

Federal lawmakers routinely form a congressional caucus when they meet to pursue common objectives. The group's formation is timely as Congress has been gearing up to renew the Higher Education Act, which governs federal student aid.

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