College access and affordability on House Democrats’ menu for students

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by Mary Ellen Flannery

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House Democrats turned their attention to the reauthorization of the 50-year-old Higher Education Act this week, pledging to support measures that “make sure all students have access to higher education opportunities,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA).

That means students like the one that Illinois community college professor Jim Grimes described to Scott and his colleagues: “Smart, hard working, a single mother with a full-time job, trying to pay off student loans…” When Grimes found her an internship in her field of broadcasting, she couldn’t afford the train ticket to the studio.

Even today, when a college degree is more critical then ever to getting a good job, and the nation’s economy relies on a well-educated workforce, many Americans are excluded from higher ed. It’s too expensive, and too often leads to enormous student debt. And, Grimes also pointed out, it’s also too often delivered by low-paid, marginalized, contingent professors.

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IL college professor Jim Grimes

In a Wednesday forum hosted by Scott and U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX), minority leaders of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, panelists from groups like Education Trust, Generation Progress, Young Invincibles, as well as Grimes, a IEA-NEA member who works as an adjunct professor at two Chicagoland community colleges, urged Representatives to consider the original promise of the Higher Education Act.

Ask Congress to support a Higher Education Act (HEA) that reclaims the promise of access for all Americans to high-quality higher education. Sign NEA’s petition for a student-focused HEA here.

“The possibility of a college degree is becoming further and further out of reach every day,” said Maggie Thompson, executive director of Generation Progress. And the high costs of college—which have been transferred to students and parents, as states shrug off the bills—are particularly insurmountable for students of color and poor students, she said.

Recently, “heat maps” produced by the campaign Higher Ed, Not Debt, of which NEA is a partner, show the incredible disparities of student debt in Black and Latino neighborhoods. Check out the maps, and find the average amount of debt in your neighborhood, overall and by race.

A high-quality higher ed

Senate Democrats recently proposed specific measures to improve college access and affordability, and House Democrats said Wednesday that they support that legislation, which includes the RED Act, a bill that also has NEA’s support. The RED Act would increase federal Pell grants for the neediest Americans, allow student borrowers to refinance their loans at lower interest rates, and provide funds to states that make community college free.

Grimes and adjunct professor Paul Dannenfelser, a United Academics of Philadelphia activist, both urged Representatives to also consider the quality of education that students need. There are 1.8 million faculty members in the U.S., and 1.3 million are working off the tenure track as adjunct or contingent professors, said Dannenfelser.

As an adjunct, Grimes earns $2,000 or less per semester per class, he told Scott and others. That adds up to less than $20,000 a year for a full-time teaching load. “If I weren’t a retired teacher and a retired soldier, with modest pensions, I couldn’t even afford to travel to these colleges to teach,” he said.

Adjuncts who belong to unions, like Grimes, who is a member of IEA-NEA, usually earn better wages and benefits, and often can negotiate for access to professional development and campus offices where they can meet with students. But this is also an issue that could and should be addressed in the reauthorization of HEA, urged Dannenfelser.

“These working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” he said.

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