By Mary Ellen Flannery
Recently, NEA’s Higher Education Advocate reached out to a number of candidates to ask the tough questions on college affordability, the Higher Education Act, contingent faculty, for-profit colleges and more. Three US Senate candidates, Ted Strickland of Ohio, Patrick Murphy of Florida, and Katie McGinty of Pennsylvania, took the time to share their thoughts with our members. Check out their responses below and get to know their plans for higher education.
Education Votes: In recent years, the costs of a college degree, even at our great public institutions, have grown further out of reach, and collective student debt in the U.S. has reached an incredible $1.2 trillion. Should all Americans have the opportunity to pursue higher education?
I was the first in my family to go to college – education truly changed the course of my life, and I want every Ohioan to have the same kind of educational opportunities that I had. But the amount of student debt that our working families are facing has reached a crisis point. It’s making it too hard for too many Ohioans to get the education they need to succeed and pursue their dreams.
When I was governor I was proud to freeze tuition at public colleges for two years, Ohio had the lowest rate of tuition growth in the nation and we made college free for veterans. In the Senate, I’ll bring this same commitment to making sure that every Ohioan has access to quality and affordable higher education by supporting proposals like debt free college, and expanding support for programs like Pell Grants and the Perkins Loan Program.
Our children deserve access to quality higher education. This is essential to grow our middle class, strengthen our economy, and remain the world’s leader in innovation. But, rising tuition at four-year public colleges has prevented many of our students from accessing higher education and forces many others to take on crushing student loan debt. States need to step up and increase their investment in public higher education. Congress needs to do its part by increasing grant programs to better reflect the true cost of higher education as well as addressing the student loan debt crisis in this country. Ultimately, I support the goal of debt-free college and will work to achieve that in the U.S. Senate.
It is absolutely critical that we make sure any young person who’s willing to work hard has the same chance that I had to pursue a college education. To do this, we need to put a lid on the skyrocketing costs of college, strengthen the programs that help students pay for school, and take control of our student debt crisis. Right now, families can re-finance their house, they can re-finance their car, but they can’t re-finance their college loans. That doesn’t make sense.
Education Votes: It’s likely that the next Senate will take on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the 51-year-old law that governs college affordability programs, teacher training, and more. Many NEA Higher Ed members have said that they’d like to see Congress use this opportunity to reinstate year-round Pell Grants, and allow borrowers to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates. Do these sound like measures you would support? What else would you like to see in the next HEA?
The Senate should come together and acknowledge the student debt in our country is truly a crisis, and that we need to take action now to address this challenge and make sure Ohioans can get the education they need to be successful.
First, we need to make a commitment that college education should be debt-free for students. Second, I’ll support proposals like those put forward by Senator Warren that will allow students to refinance their loans to get a fair and more affordable interest rate. I also believe no one should be paying more than 10% of their annual income towards their student debt, and that the government should not be making excessive profits off the backs of our students through these kinds of loans. Third, I believe we must expand and protect vital programs like Pell Grants, the Perkins Loan Program, and apprenticeship programs that put higher education in reach for millions of Americans.
Unfortunately, Senator Portman opposed letting students refinance their loans at a lower rate in order to protect handouts for millionaires, he voted for the largest cut to Pell Grants in history, and proposed ending the Perkins Loan Program completely which many Ohio students depend on.
We face a variety of new challenges since the Higher Education Act was reauthorized in 2008 and the next HEA must work to address them. Federal student loans have become far too complicated, leaving so many students struggling to make their payments. I was proud to introduce the Simple Income-Based Repayment Act last year to address this issue and I hope the next HEA will work to simplify these programs.
I also support summer Pell eligibility. I am proud to cosponsor the bipartisan Flexible Pell Grant for 21st Century Students Act and this should absolutely be part of HEA reauthorization. Finally, the next HEA reauthorization must address the fallout of institution closure. Thousands of students were hurt when ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges shut their doors. We have to work towards borrower relief and institutional accountability to help these students.
In the Senate, I will push for greater transparency around the costs of college and work to tie federal grants and other incentives to schools’ success at keeping costs down. We should protect and strengthen the existing college affordability infrastructure we have, by restoring year-round Pell Grants, which help nearly 300,000 Pennsylvania students. I also support efforts like those led by Senator Elizabeth Warren to bring down interest rates on student loans and allow students and grads to refinance.
Education Votes: In addition to the concerns of faculty, many campus staff members face privatization of their jobs and anti-union attacks on their right to bargain for fair wages and working conditions. What will you do to support unions and working families?
I’m running for the U.S. Senate to fight for Ohioans who actually work for a living because that’s who I am, that’s where I’m from, and that’s who I’ll always put first. I have always been a friend to labor, and I fought side-by-side with our unions to repeal Ohio’s Senate Bill 5 and protect the rights of workers to form unions and bargain together for better wages and safer working conditions. In the Senate, I will continue my proven record of fighting for working families by continuing to oppose so-called ‘right to work laws,’ working to ensure that Ohioans receive fair overtime pay, and supporting proposals like raising the minimum wage and equal pay for equal work.
Senator Portman co-sponsored a national Right to Work law, voted to strip overtime pay away from 6 million workers, voted against raising the minimum wage and against pay equity for women 5 times. Senator Portman also wants to raise the retirement age, voucherize Medicare and tried to privatize Social Security. At every turn, Senator Portman has pushed the agenda of his rich and powerful friends, while Ohio’s working families have paid the price.
Strong unions helped build our middle class and their hard-fought gains for workers must be protected. I am proud to stand with our unions to fight to raise the minimum wage, protect workers’ rights, and defend Social Security and Medicare for our seniors. Since coming to Congress in 2013, I have consistently fought Republican proposals to erode workplace protections, fair wages, and non-discrimination. I will always fight to protect organized labor and collective bargaining rights.
To me, unions represent so much of what is great about our country. When I was growing up, my dad was a Philadelphia police officer. He worked hard, and it was his FOP healthcare plan that allowed my nine siblings and me to grow up safe and healthy, and his pension that allowed my mom and him to retire with dignity and peace of mind. For decades, and to this day, organized labor has been on the frontlines of the fight to give working people the respect and fair treatment they deserve. I am grateful to have the endorsement of a diversity of unions in this race and I will be proud to bring their fight to the Senate floor – working to raise wages, enact strong workplace protections, and protect the right of working people to organize and negotiate.
Education Votes: In higher education, we often see students victimized by the predatory practices of for-profit colleges. Many are students of color, first-generation college-goers, and U.S. veterans, who overwhelmingly rely on federal student loans to attend these institutions but have been misled about the costs and benefits of those programs. What’s your answer for the students abused by this industry?
We need to hold these for-profit colleges accountable for the claims they make, and when these kinds of for-profit schools are found to have engaged in malicious conduct, we need to work with the appropriate authorities to protect the interests of students and families. Too many of the promises these businesses make to students are just blatantly unsubstantiated. Educational institutions should be focused on education – not profiteering off the backs of our most vulnerable students seeking to better themselves.
The Department of Education must have the authority to regulate higher education institutions, including for-profit schools. A number of bad actors have hurt our students with deceptive marketing, financial fraud, and other illegal activities. Congress has a responsibility to act to protect students and taxpayers. The next HEA must include comprehensive oversight that ensures all of our students have the opportunity to succeed. This will also help foster innovation to better serve non-traditional and under-served student groups.
Education Votes: There are still huge gender inequalities in the higher education workforce—for example, women are more likely to be lower-paid adjunct or contingent faculty, and also more likely to be lower-paid academic staff members. Can you tell us more about your plans to level the playing field for women?
Leveling the playing field for working women is more than just a “women’s issue” – it’s a family issue that affects our whole economy. That’s why I will work not only to close the gender pay gap once and for all, but also to ensure that all workers have access to paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and affordable childcare. My plan will ensure that women and men are similarly able to balance the demands of raising a family with the challenges of their career.
Education Votes: What’s your vision for federal policy on higher education?
I believe our federal policy should be focused around one central goal: ensuring that every student who wants to is able to get the higher education they need in order to be successful. That means making traditional college more affordable and accessible for working families, as well as strengthening and supporting job training programs – like the bipartisan LEAP Act which would provide tax credits to businesses that offer apprenticeships.