by Mary Ellen Flannery
Even as countless poor and middle-class students and families struggle to pay for increasingly costly college degrees, and even as the nation’s employers demand millions more college-educated workers, U.S. Sen. Paul Ryan has proposed a federal budget that would put a college degree further out of reach.
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By taking aim at public higher education and college affordability programs, the GOP federal budget plan for 2014 not only harms students and families, but also makes it less likely that the country can be competitive in the global economy.
“With the country producing fewer college graduates than the economy needs and so many Americans struggling to keep up with college costs and student loan payments, it’s clearly time to make college more affordable, not less.” said Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), in a recent statement [ed note: pdf link].
NEA stands behind the plan presented by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State, on behalf of Senate Democrats. Unlike the Ryan plan, the Murray plan puts students and working families first. It restores funding for public education, builds and repairs infrastructure, and maintains opportunities for young people to access higher education.
Take, for example, their different approaches to Pell Grants, the federal college grant program for the most-needy Americans. Last year, Pell Grants provided a ticket to the middle class for 9.4 million Americans, helping them prepare for much-needed careers in health services, technology and manufacturing, law enforcement, and more. But Ryan’s plan calls for tighter eligibility requirements, and also for capping awards at 2013 levels for the next 10 years (ignoring the rising cost of college and inflation.) In other words, he’d force poor Americans to either borrow more (and student loan loads already are sky-high) or forego college altogether.
And that’s not all—the Ryan plan also would allow student loan interest rates on new Stafford loans to double this July, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. And it closes the door on the new federal Income-Based Repayment Plan, a program that allows student loan borrowers to tie their monthly payment to their income levels and provides for loan forgiveness after 20 years. Without that plan, some students will still be paying off their loans in retirement.
The Murray plan, on the other hand, ensures funding for Pell. It also facilitates legislation to maintain student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent, and it maintains the income-based repayment program.
You might wonder what Ryan and his cohorts would do with all the money that they’re saving by denying poor Americans a chance to go to college? Well, his budget also calls for 10 and 15 percent cuts in the tax rates for the nation’s wealthiest corporations and citizens, respectively.
“It’s wrong to balance budgets on the backs of students and the most vulnerable without demanding corporations and the rich pay their fair share in taxes,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “Congress has a responsibility to come up with a balanced approach to get our nation’s fiscal house in order without inflicting irreversible harm to 50 million students—risking their future and the future of our nation.”