As members of Congress prepare to vote on the Higher Education Act, a bill packed with significant policy affecting public college and university access and success, AFT members fanned out across Capitol Hill to talk personally with legislators about the importance of improving equity and funding for higher education.
They were pressing for support for the College Affordability Act, which proposes significant changes to the original Higher Education Act—a piece of legislation originally created in 1965 to establish federal financial aid and other programs to make college more accessible to more Americans. The new legislation would boost loan forgiveness, increase investment in public colleges and universities, and drill down to address urgent student needs with emergency student aid.
“The College Affordability Act is a big step toward making higher education a realistic possibility for everyone who aspires to a college education,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “House Democrats have stepped up with a proposal that meets the needs of the struggling and the striving by creating a genuine pathway to college affordability, revamping loan forgiveness so it is there for people who need it, and increasing the investment in colleges and universities—institutions that have long suffered terrible disinvestment. Together, this set of reforms will bring many families closer to the dream of a college degree without the associated crushing debt.”
The College Affordability Act, a 1,165-page bill, is nothing if not comprehensive. Among the highlights are:
- A federal-state partnership to make tuition and fees for all community college students free.
- A $625 increase in the minimum Pell Grant.
- Availability of Pell Grants to incarcerated students and undocumented students, and also for qualifying short-term programs.
- Improvements to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program so that administrative hurdles no longer stand in the way of the loan forgiveness public employees have earned.
- Restoration of subsidized loans for graduate students.
- Increased accountability in Title IX language so that there is more accountability regarding sexual assault and harassment on campus.
- More wraparound services to increase student retention.
- Restoration of the gainful employment rule, which Education Secretary Betsy DeVos repealed. The rule requires that career education programs (including all those at for-profit institutions) show that their graduates are able to find “gainful employment” upon graduating, preventing the perpetuation of shoddy programs.
- Restoration of the borrower-defense rule, also repealed by DeVos. This rule ensures that students who were defrauded by their institutions can have their student loans discharged.
- Closing the 90-10 loophole and restoring it to 85-15: The 90-10 rule requires that for-profit colleges get at least 10 percent of their funding from sources other than federal financial aid—but a loophole exists in current law that means aid for military veterans (the GI Bill, for example) is excluded from that category.
- Additional grant aid for students who attend minority-serving institutions (including historically black colleges and universities).
About 20 AFT leaders from the union’s higher education division of faculty and staff were able to meet with members of the House Education and Labor Committee just days before markup—the process during which they finalize and prepare the bill for a full House of Representatives vote—and advocate for the best bits of the College Affordability Act. Markup will take place Oct. 29, and the bill is likely to be discussed on the House floor before the end of the calendar year.
“Today, 41 states spend less on higher education than they did before the recession, making degrees more expensive than ever,” says Weingarten, underscoring the importance of the bill. “Add to that the $1.7 trillion [national] student loan debt, and you have a generation of strivers who have taken the entire burden of college education on their shoulders. … Through this legislation, Congress can play a role in making college more affordable so more people can succeed, in addition to enabling the critical investments in higher education that are necessary to fund our nation’s future.”