by Mary Ellen Flannery
Some U.S. Senators took a hard look this week at college affordability, an issue of critical importance to Americans who struggle to cope with college costs that have risen nearly 600 percent since the 1980s — or triple the pace at which the earnings of middle-class families have risen.
“We need to break from usual business… to realize what I hope is our shared goal for every American to have access to post-secondary opportunities, regardless of one’s background,” warned U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which held a hearing Thursday on the rising costs of college and the declining investment by states.
Since the 1980s, state support for public colleges and universities has dropped dramatically—7.6 percent between 2011 and 2012 alone—forcing institutions to raise tuition to cover their expenses, Harkin noted. In Tennessee, for example, 20 years ago a student paid about one-third of the cost of college and the state paid the rest; today, the opposite is true.
But access to post-secondary degrees and certificates means everything in today’s economy—jobs, higher wages, home ownership, and the nation’s fiscal health. “Higher education can’t be a luxury. It’s an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford,” said President Obama in his State of the Union speech earlier this year.
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And Obama has put his money where his mouth is: Under his leadership, not only did he protect Pell Grants from attacks, he invested an additional $932 million in the program. And he didn’t stop there. Obama also allocated an additional $6.2 billion to the federal direct student loan program, making it easier for low-income and middle-class Americans to borrow money, and gave a 15 percent boost to the federal work-study program.
Meanwhile, his opponents just don’t seem to get it. Mitt Romney told voters at campaign stop earlier this year that Americans “should get as much education as they can afford.” (The problem, which he doesn’t seem to realize, is that only the very wealthiest Americans can afford today’s tuition rates!) And his running mate, U.S. Rep Paul Ryan, was the author of the budget plan that would have stripped Pell Grants from 500,000 students.
On Thursday, the Senate considered other solutions, piloted by states or groups of states, such as the performance-based standards adopted in Tennessee, which link state funds to institution-specific goals around student progress and degree completion. Under that model, noted John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, “student services become one of the last things you want to cut.”
In a letter sent to committee members this year, NEA applauded their continued focus on the issue of college affordability and funding. “NEA believes that anyone who is qualified and interested in post-secondary education should have the opportunity, regardless of ability to pay,” wrote Mary Kusler, director of government relations. With that in mind, she wrote, need-based aid like Pell Grants should be increased; student loans be made more affordable through lower interest rates and sensible repayment plans; and loan forgiveness programs expanded to encourage careers in public service, such as teaching.