Mr. President, I rise today in strong support of the Conference Report to accompany the College Cost Reduction and Access Act now before the Senate.
The Conference Report and the underlying bill make extraordinary progress on one of the most critical challenges before this Congress: making college affordable for all our nation’s deserving students.
We all know that education plays a crucial role in helping people pursue the American Dream.
That term was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book
The Epic of America
, which he wrote in 1931 during the Great Depression.
He wrote: “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Congress passed the Higher Education Act in 1965 to help all Americans “attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.”
Millions of students have gained access to higher education due to the financial assistance programs, including Pell Grants, this historic legislation created.
The problem now is that tuition costs are rising rapidly, wages are stagnant, and Congress hasn’t kept up in terms of providing the funding necessary to bridge the gap.
In my home state of Maryland, for example, in the five years between the 2000-2001 and 2005-2006 school years, the cost of attending four-year public colleges increased 36 percent, from $10,846 to $14,793.
But the median household income in Maryland increased just 11 percent.
Even after financial aid is taken into account, 32 percent of the median family income in Maryland is needed to pay for just one year at a four-year public college.
The effects of this disparity between college costs and family income are devastating.
ch year, more than
400,000 talented, qualified, hopeful students cannot attend a four-year college because, Mr. President, they cannot afford
When I was a young man, such a person might have had other viable options for making a decent wage and pursuing a fulfilling career.
But today, 60 percent of new jobs require some post-secondary education, compared to just 15 percent of new jobs when I was a student.
Those students who do go on to college are becoming more and more dependent on private loans which carry high interest rates to finance their education.
In 1986-1987, the maximum Pell Grant covered 39 percent of the average public four-year college tuition in Maryland; in 2005-2006 it covered only 27 percent.
This decline is due, in part, to a shift of a great portion of federal spending on student aid from grants to loans: 30 years ago, 77 percent of federal aid to students was in the form of grants, and only 20 percent was in the form of loans.
By the 2005- 2006 school year, this distribution pattern had been reversed, to 73 percent of aid taking the form of loans and 20 percent coming in grants.
Just 15 years ago, fewer than half of all students took out loans to finance their education.
That number must seem incredible to today’s students and parents struggling to finance a college education because today, Mr. President, more than two-thirds of students borrow for college.
In Maryland, 53 percent of students graduating from four-year institutions in 2005 graduated with debt.
The average student graduating from a four-year college in Maryland that year owed $14,822 in student loan debt.
The growing barriers to higher education also have a profound effect on our national economy.
We do not have enough highly skilled workers in this country.
We recruit overseas to find engineers, computer programmers, and scientists.
Nor can we fill essential social service positions.
More and more students avoid critically important career paths such as teaching, nursing, social work, and law enforcement.
These are some of the most important professions in our country but lower starting salaries are a distressingly powerful disincentive: nationally, nearly a quarter of public four-year college graduates and over a third of private four-year college graduates have too much debt to afford a starting teacher’s salary.
Over half of those graduating from private colleges have too much debt to enter the social work profession.
Debt levels are also causing graduates to delay buying a home or a car and postpone marriage and having children.
Such decisions have important ramifications not just for the individuals involved, but for society as a whole.
Mr. President, as a member of the Budget Committee, I worked hard with my colleagues to make more money available for grant aid.
We allocated $9.2 billion for education and training over and above the President’s budget request to be invested, in part, in Pell Grants.
We believe such an investment will make college more affordable so that all eligible students can gain the knowledge, skills, and experience they need to succeed
and to ensure that employers have the workforce they need to compete in a fiercely competitive, global marketplace.
The important legislation before us today takes essential steps to reverse our current course.
The College Cost Reduction and Access Act will make college more affordable by:
Increasing access for low-income students by increasing the maximum Pell Grant from $4,310 to $4,910 next year and to $5,400 by 2012, and simplifying the financial aid process
for low-income students by increasing the income level at which a student is automatically eligible for the maximum Pell Grant;
Easing the burden on borrowers by cutting student loan interest rates in half, from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent for undergraduate students with subsidized student loans;
Protecting borrowers by capping monthly federal loan payments at 15 percent of discretionary income;
Protecting working students and ensuring they are not penalized by increasing the amount of student income that is sheltered from the financial aid process; and
Encouraging public service by providing federal loan forgiveness for public service employees.
The College Cost Reduction and Access Act would increase access to and preparation for college by both restoring funding for Upward Bound, a key college access program, and creating College Access Challenge Grants to increase college outreach activities in every State.
The legislation strengthens Minority Serving Institutions with an additional $500 million investment.
Despite tremendous challenges and limited resources, minority serving institutions are responsible for educating many of our nation’s minority students who would not otherwise obtain a degree.
Increasing federal investment will allow these institutions to provide a better education to more students.
But it is not enough to offer more aid.
Recent investigations have shown that private lenders have been exploiting the student loan system, to the detriment of the students the system is meant to serve. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act will ensure that the student loan system works for students and saves taxpayer dollars by directing unnecessary lender subsidies to student aid and injecting competition into the loan program.
In addition, this legislation will help ensure that more students are prepared for college by helping to provide good teachers to the schools where they are needed most.
According to research, teacher quality is the schooling factor with the most profound effect on student achievement.
Good teachers can make up to a full year’s difference in learning growth for students and overwhelm the impact of any other educational investment, including smaller class sizes.
Unfortunately, our educational system pairs the children most behind with teachers who, on average, have less experience, less education, and less skill than those who teach other children.
We will only close student achievement gaps when we improve teacher quality and experience.
We must make obtaining advanced training and experience in teaching more accessible and teaching at-risk students more desirable.
I have introduced a bill (S. 1282), which Senators Snowe and Durbin have co-sponsored, to encourage the establishment of a class of “Master Teachers” with extensive experience and training.
If they are willing to teach for an extended period of time in a school that is not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress goals, then they would be rewarded under my bill with a 25 percent federal tax exemption on their salary.
While my Master Teachers bill has not been incorporated into the legislation before us, I hope the Senate will pass it soon.
The College Cost Reduction and Access Act also creates incentives for good teachers to teach in high-need schools by establishing new TEACH Grants.
These grants will provide scholarships of $4,000 per year for high-achieving undergraduate and graduate students who commit to teaching a high-need subject in a high-need school.
Mr. President, this legislation contains the biggest increase in federal student aid since the original G.I. Bill.
This is how our country should be investing its money: helping to open the door to our children’s dreams, not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of our communities, our economy, our nation, and all of humanity.
I am proud that this Congress realizes that increasing access to post-secondary education serves both as a gateway to the American Dream for our nation’s students and a pathway to our economic success and security as a nation.