July 24, 2007

WE MUST OPEN THE DOORS OF EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY

 

Mr. President, I rise today in strong support of the Higher Education Amendments before the Senate.   This bill works toward one of the most important responsibilities elected representatives shoulder; opening the doors of educational opportunity for each American child and every American family.  

 

Last week the Senate took a critical step toward making college more affordable by passing the Higher Education Access Act, legislation that increases Pell grants, caps student loan repayments, and provides loan forgiveness for those who enter and stick with careers in public service.  

 

But, Mr. President, we must actually control college costs if we hope to make permanent progress on college affordability.   The legislation now before the Senate would not only allow the Secretary of Education to highlight those colleges and universities whose tuition increases are out of line with their peers, it would allow the Secretary to study what factors are driving soaring higher education costs in this country and identify what measures could be utilized to bring them under control.  

 

Even with this effort and the important measures passed last week, most students and their families in Maryland and around the nation will still have to borrow money to make their college dream a reality.  

 

Today, that means completing lengthy and confusing federal and school-based student aid applications.   Once those applications are submitted, families must decipher various colleges' price estimates and various banks' descriptions of loan terms and conditions.   Financial award letters often contain inconsistent definitions and formats to describe the cost of attendance, the financial aid offered, and the costs associated with various types of loans.   Too many banks provide inadequate information about their rates and terms.   As a result, families are unable to shop around for the financial aid package or best loan rates and are ill-prepared for post-graduation monthly payments.   Jim Guest, President of the Consumers Union has said that "[f]inancing a house or car can be confusing, but it's nothing compared with trying to pay for a college education."

 

In the face of such confusion, many students and their families turn to financial aid officers to guide their choices.   But throughout this year, Mr. President, thanks to the New York Attorney General and my distinguished colleagues on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, we have learned that some financial aid officers, including, unfortunately, some from Maryland, were not giving families honest advice.   Some financial aid offices were receiving expensive gifts, travel and other kickbacks from lenders and in return recommended those lenders to students, even if the product was not in the students' best interest.

 

This important legislation takes critical steps to reform the entire student loan system to so that students and their families will receive timely, accessible and reliable information and can make wise college financing decisions.

 

First and foremost, the legislation would s implify the financial aid process for all students and their families.

 

The bill reforms the federal financial aid application.    The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is currently ten long pages full of complex questions.   Its length and complexity create an unnecessary obstacle for low- and middle-income students seeking the aid they need to attend college.   The Higher Education Amendments simplify the FAFSA by creating a new two-page EZ-FAFSA for low-income students, and phasing out the current seven-page FAFSA for all applicants within 5 years.

 

Further, Mr. President, the bill creates a pilot program that allows students to receive an aid determination or estimate in their junior year of high school.    Rather than making complicated decisions in a frenzy of paper and options, the bill facilitates student planning giving families time to investigate their financing options.

 

This critical bill makes sure that those options are easier to understand.   The bill requires the Secretary of Education work with colleges and universities to develop several model price calculators that would give students an institutions' actual net price.   With these bottom line prices in hand-in clear and consistent terms-families will be better equipped to make the right college and financing choices.  

 

Plus, Mr. President, the bill requires lenders clearly disclose the terms of their loans and again asks the Secretary of Education to develop a consumer-friendly format so that families receive information in a consistent and accessible way.  

 

But critically important, Mr. President, the bill protects students by ensuring colleges recommend lenders based on students, not banks' or financial aid officers', best interest.

 

The bill requires that colleges adopt and enforce a code of conduct that prohibits the college or any of its employees from accepting any significant gifts, trips, services, or other benefits from lenders.   Period.   If a college chooses to select a "preferred lender," it must provide the Secretary of Education and the public a clear report explaining why the preferred products are in the best interest of students or their parents.  

 

These provisions take critical steps towards cleaning up the student the student loan industry by removing the conflicts of interest that compromised the advice and integrity of too many financial aid offices and officers.

 

Beyond the student loans, the Higher Education Amendments make more grant aid available to students in Maryland and around the nation.   This bill expands eligibility criteria for Academic Competitiveness Grants (ACG) and National Science Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) grants; expands critical opportunities and services provided for low-income, first generation, and homeless college students under federal TRIO programs; increases grants to states to provide its young scientists and mathematicians with scholarships;   and increases colleges' ability to reach out and prepare younger students for college through partnership programs.   The bill makes it easier for colleges to use grant money to provide financial counseling and for students to engage in public service opportunities as part of their work-study obligations.  

 

Grant programs encourage colleges to build partnerships with the business community to address the nations' workforce needs and to build programs that teach all students, and especially minority students, foreign languages and encourage them to enter international service fields.   The bill creates a new grant program for Predominantly Black Institutions to enhance their capacity to service more low- and middle-income Black American Students; and a new grant for colleges to develop and improve their campus safety and emergency response systems in the wake of the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech.  

 

What do these changes mean for Maryland students?   Well, instead of filling out a seven-page monstrosity, students will have access to a simpler two page form, and eventually an on-line smart form that tailors later questions as a student answers earlier ones and may even be able to populate information from forms submitted to the IRS and other government agencies.  

 

Students will know their financial needs by their junior year of high school enabling their family to examine straight-forward and honest documents outlining financing options.   Families will be able to rely on financial aid officers for honest advice and will have greater access to financial aid counseling.   Expanded grant eligibility requirements will give Maryland students increased access to grants and a better ability to pursue their dreams.   St. John's students in Annapolis, for instance, will now be able to apply for SMART grants whereas this unique institution's absence of formal majors was a barrier to student eligibility in the past.   Students who choose to go to school year-round will be eligible for a second Pell grant.   The books and supplies allowance for federal work-study students will go from $450 to $600.  

 

Perhaps most important, Mr. President, this bill takes steps toward addressing one of the most critical education problems we have in this country:   a growing teacher shortage.    As you know, Mr. President, teachers are our most valuable resource when it comes to educating our nation's children.    According to research, teacher quality is the schooling factor with the greatest effect on student achievement.   Good teachers can make up to a full year's difference in learning growth for students and dwarf the impact of any other educational investment, even smaller class sizes.

 

But between the retirement of hundreds of thousands of baby boomers, efforts to reduce class sizes, and the No Child Left Behind law's raised standards for new teachers, school systems across the nation can't find enough qualified recruits to fill their class rooms.

 

Maryland is no different.   In 2006, the Maryland Higher Education Commission found that the state "is not producing or attracting enough teachers to fulfill the staffing requirements of the State's school systems, especially in high need certification fields."   High turnover only makes the problem worse.  

 

It is widely accepted that it takes five years to master the complex art of teaching.   But, Mr. President, one third of new teachers leave the profession within three years, half within five years, and attrition is greater in schools in low-income, urban districts.   Of the estimated 6 million people in the U.S. with teaching backgrounds or credentials, only 3 million are actually teaching.   Not only does the turnover leave our classrooms without teachers, but recruiting and training new teachers costs the country $7 billion a year.

 

Because research shows even modest monetary incentives lower teacher attrition, especially in high-risk school districts, I introduced the Master Teacher Act of 2007 to reward "master teachers" with a 25 percent federal tax exemption on their salary for four years if they agree to teach in a school that is not meeting No Child Left Behind's annual achievement goals.   That legislation is now before the Senate Finance Committee.  

 

But more must be done to attract our best and brightest to teaching and then keep them there.   Most professions, Mr. President, require new entrants go through extensive formal or informal apprenticeships before taking on the profession's full responsibilities.   Not many graduate law school and the next day walk into a court room and try a death penalty case or graduate medical school and immediately walk into an operating room to perform open-heart surgery.   Those professions require decades of training post-graduation.   Teaching is an equally complex profession, melding academic theory and practice, and carries enormous responsibility for children's personal and our nation's collective economic future.

 

But too many teachers are thrown into a classroom with their own students, many with complex social, emotional, and learning needs, without sufficient training or support.   And too many leave the profession feeling frustrated, defeated, and disheartened.   Studies have shown a connection between support in the first year and teachers' moving between schools and leaving the profession. A helpful mentor (as reported by teachers) significantly reduces the chances of quitting in the first year. Common planning time and collaboration with other teachers are strong predictors of teachers' decisions to stay in a school and the profession.

 

The Higher Education Amendments will improve teacher quality, training and retention by promoting high-quality and effective teacher preparation programs for new and prospective teachers and helping high need schools, by focusing on recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers in high-need schools.

 

The bill creates competitive grants for innovative teacher preparation programs that address the need for stronger teaching methods and better teacher support.   The bill provides a competitive grant for college level preparation programs that include evidence-based teaching methods, mentoring programs for the teacher's first two years in service-called induction programs-and new accountability measures to allow programs to improve the training offered.   

 

The bill also provides grants to teaching residency programs, programs that provide participants a one-year stipend to engage in a guided teaching apprenticeship with a master teacher that integrates theory and practice and includes master's degree coursework.   These residency programs must place participants in high-needs schools and work with local school districts to develop an induction program to provide continued support to residents once the program ends.   These programs must also contain accountability measures methods that allow for program evaluation and improvement.

 

I want to express my gratitude to Senators Kennedy and Enzi and the rest of my colleagues on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee for all their hard work and leadership in bringing such a comprehensive and innovative bill to the floor.  

 

Mr. President, I first ran for elected office in my home state of Maryland at the age of twenty-two.   I sought elected office because I believed that government can make a difference in people's lives.   This bill, re-authorizing the Higher Education Act of 1965, does just that and I am proud to offer my support.