Cost of College Smothering Opportunity

Floor Speech

Date: Nov. 30, 2011
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. COURTNEY. Mr. Speaker, it has now been 2 months since the Occupy Wall Street movement spread all across this country; and despite attempts to marginalize it, parody it, sometimes even suppress it, the fact is that one message has come through loud and clear, particularly from young Americans who have participated in this grassroots movement across the country, which is that the spiraling cost of college is smothering opportunity for millions of young Americans all across America.

Yesterday the Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan, presented a speech in Nevada which I think starkly presents the challenge which we face as a Nation. Today, the average student loan debt for graduating students is $25,000. That's the average. There are, again, millions of students who are graduating with six-figure debt. And in an economy like the one they're facing today, this is really an obstacle which will probably burden them for the rest of their lives. And as we are seeing in polls, the cost of college is discouraging many younger Americans, high school-age Americans from even considering the possibility of pursuing a higher education degree.

First of all, let's be very clear here. The value of higher education is still, despite some critics, indisputable. If you look at the unemployment rate today, 9 percent across the board in terms of our country, the fact of the matter is that those who have pursued high school and above have much lower rates of unemployment today than those who have been unable to reach those training levels and education levels.

Nationally, today the graduation rate of the U.S. has now fallen to 12th internationally. Back in the 1980s, the College Board, which is the organization which tracks graduation rates across the globe, determined we were number one in the world in terms of college graduation rates. Yet today, in 2011, we are 12th. If anybody thinks that is a situation which bodes well for our ability to compete internationally going into the future, then, frankly, they're not paying attention in terms of where the high-value jobs of the future are. They are, in fact, in hard sciences; they are, in fact, in areas of critical workforce needs which, as baby boomers retire in growing numbers across this country, we must have if we are going to continue to be a great Nation.

Now, let's look at what is happening here in Washington. I think one of the reasons why young people are going into the streets of this country is the fact that we have a Congress which is not only out of touch in terms of listening and responding to this, in fact, they want to take us backwards.

When I first came to Congress in 2007, a new Democratic majority moved swiftly to pass the College Cost Reduction Act, which was an effort to try to boost the Pell Grant program, which is the workhorse of higher education affordability, a program which basically had been level-funded for 6 prior years despite the fact that higher education costs had gone up 40 percent. We passed the College Cost Reduction Act which infused new funding into the Pell Grant program. We cut the interest rates for the Stafford student loan program from 6.4 percent to 3.2 percent, and we paid for every single penny of those expenditures by cutting the bank subsidies which were basically sucking Federal dollars away from families and students who need that critical help.

Last year we passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, again with a Democratic majority, which provides for a cap in terms of loan repayments of 15 percent of your discretionary income and excuses loan repayments after 25 years under the Stafford student loan program.

I was pleased that President Obama, again, just a month or so ago, acted to increase the benefit of that program by limiting the discretionary income payments to 10 percent of income and lowering the forgiveness date to 20 years, from 25 years. This is an administration which gets it. This is an administration that understands middle class families with children who want to improve themselves and compete in their futures need that kind of assistance.

What did this Republican Congress do? We had a Ryan budget last April which gutted and butchered the Pell Grant program and would take us back to 2008 levels. So, for example, in Connecticut, where I come from, the University of Connecticut would have seen its Pell Grant revenue from 2008, which was about $8 million going into the University of Connecticut, it would have been cut from where it is today, which is $12 million of annual Pell Grant revenue--a $4 million cut to the University of Connecticut. And the grant level for students, the maximum award, would have been cut from $4,500 a year down to roughly about $3,000 a year. That is closing the doors of opportunity to millions of Americans. That's what the Ryan budget values and that's what its vision was at a time when, again, our country is in crisis in terms of needing skilled, qualified workers to deal with the future challenge.

The choice is clear. For those who care about spiraling education costs, the Democratic agenda is the one that is on your side.