Can American students get a fair shot?

College affordability and accessibility take center stage in the fight for working families.

By Barbara McKenna

Contessa Jackson did everything right. Part of the first generation in her family to get a college degree, she studied for a profession in a high-demand field—health sciences—and was able to find work right after college so she could afford to make payments on $50,000 in education debt.

Unfortunately, the jobs she found paid just $13 an hour. Even working 70 hours a week, Jackson writes in an op-ed in the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal, her monthly loan payments have interest charges nearly double today’s market rate of 3.86 percent.

“With the interest compounding each and every month, the initial investment I made in going to college is increasing by more than $2,000 each year, thanks to my high interest rates,” Jackson says.

Robert Geremia is another professional whose life is hampered by debt repayments with high interest rates. The Washington, D.C., high school teacher and AFT member told a Senate subcommittee in June that he is paying off $37,000 in loans he took out to complete his master’s so he could teach. He expressed his frustration that with an additional $11,000 owed in interest, there is nothing he can do to lower his interest rate.

Geremia’s remarks came just before Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act in the Senate, a bill that failed by just two votes to attract the 60 votes needed for cloture. The bill would allow up to 25 million borrowers to save, on average, $2,000 over the life of their loans. To pay for it—since currently, the federal budget relies on the interest revenue—the bill would close tax loopholes benefiting millionaires and billionaires.

“It’s unconscionable that, as students and families continue to struggle under a mountain of student loan debt, Republicans in the Senate chose to side with billionaires and big banks over working families by blocking the mere discussion of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bill providing real relief to millions of Americans,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten at the time.

On Sept. 9, Warren again tried to bring  the bill up for a vote. The Republicans blocked it. Outside the Capitol building, some of the 25 million who would benefit from the bill rallied for relief.

Americans, and especially AFT members and the people we serve, are clamoring for a comprehensive solution to the problem of college affordability and skyrocketing student debt. As the midterm elections approach, addressing policy drags on economic recovery is part of the Democrats’ 2014 “A Fair Shot for Everyone” agenda. Whether it’s through raising the minimum wage, achieving pay equity for women or protecting Medicare, the focus is on ensuring that people like Jackson and Geremia—and every American who works hard—have a fair shot to succeed.

Bolder changes ahead

Ensuring opportunity for all to benefit from higher education will take more than one bill, however. This is the year that Congress was to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which expired at the end of 2013. It is supposed to be reauthorized every five years and represents the federal government’s biggest contribution to higher education, primarily through funding and defining federal financial aid programs.

This year, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, had vowed to make a sweeping overhaul of the Higher Education Act his signature piece of legislation. After a legislative career dedicated to leveling the playing field for all Americans, improving access to higher education, and protecting students from fraud and abuse, Harkin is retiring at the end of this session.

Through hearings around the country over the past year, Harkin and fellow senators heard from working families and students, education experts, business interests, and organizations like the AFT that have documented the unsustainability of current practices. In June, Harkin unveiled a 785-page draft of the Higher Education Affordability Act.

Taking a different approach in the House of Representatives, legislators passed three small bills this summer but failed to seriously address the issue of student debt, to the consternation of House Democrats.

From the Senate: 
A state-federal partnership

Harkin’s bill focuses on four main goals: increasing college affordability, reducing student debt, holding colleges more accountable to students and the public, and improving transparency in the federal aid programs. Under the accountability mantle, the bill tackles policies to crack down on predatory practices in the for-profit education sector, which can saddle students with debt and worthless degrees.

The cornerstone of the proposal is a state-federal partnership to improve state investment in higher education. After decades of state disinvestment, this formula block-grant program could be a game changer to keep tuition down, since state policy and funding levels have the greatest impact on college affordability and debt. Strengthening the partnership was a key recommendation of the AFT in a letter it sent to Capitol Hill in March.

Harkin’s Senate proposal also would offer year-round Pell Grants and a funding mechanism to reinvest in instruction and student support services. This measure is very important to the AFT, as it would allow Congress and the public to hold colleges accountable for their overreliance on underpaid and underresourced part-time/adjunct faculty. Contingent faculty teach the majority of courses on college campuses and comprise 73 percent of the higher ed instructional workforce.

From the House: Baby steps

Unlike the Senate’s all-encompassing approach, the three bills passed in the House this summer are limited:

  • The Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act would give students and families better information about college costs beyond tuition and fees. It also would help make transparent  facts about who teaches and the ratio of part-time instructors to full-time instructors.
  • The Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act would encourage innovation in instruction by letting students enrolled in pilot institutions use federal student aid to pay for tuition for competency-based courses.
  • The Empowering Students through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act would arm college consumers and graduates with knowledge and more financial literacy to help clarify the risks of taking on debt and also would ensure more information gets to students about existing consumer protections and little-used repayment options, such as Pay As You Earn.

The Higher Education Act also lays out policy regarding accreditation and oversight, an area that the AFT has been weighing in on and monitoring closely. The House voted to extend the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity and the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance for one year.  

In this election year, when the higher education community had hoped this Congress would have already accomplished a reauthorized Higher Education Act, the work still lies before us. All the more reason for each of our members to remind students, friends, neighbors and family to vote on Nov. 4 to ensure that we retain a Democratic majority in the Senate to pass this pivotal piece of legislation next year.

AFT On Campus, Fall 2014
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On Campus Fall 2014 cover image