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Letter to the Senate HELP Committee on College Costs

July 19, 2012

Dear Senator:

On behalf of the more than three million members of the National Education Association (NEA), we thank the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for holding a hearing on the rising cost of higher education. College costs have risen nearly 600 percent since the 1980s—nearly double the rate at which healthcare costs have risen, triple the rate at which the earnings of middle-class have risen, and five times the rate at which the earnings of low-income families have risen. Here are the realities:  

  • State support for higher education is declining. Between school years 2011 and 2012 alone, state support declined by a whopping 7.6 percent—the biggest drop in at least half a century. As a whole, state spending on higher educa­tion­—after being supported by federal recovery-act money for three budget years—is now nearly 4 percent lower than it was in the 2007 fiscal year. (Source: Grapevine Project, Center for the Study of Education Policy, Illinois State University, 2012.
  • Costs are being shifted to struggling students—and their parents, many of whom are struggling as well. Since the early 1990s, the state share of higher education costs has steadily declined, the federal share has remained about the same, and the student/family share has risen sharply. (Sources: Lumina Foundation, “Collision course: Rising college costs threaten America’s future and require shared solutions,” 2004; National Education Association, Higher Education Advocate, “Shift in Costs for Higher Education,” 2011).
  • Compensation of higher education faculty has not kept pace with the rising cost of living. Between school years 2010 and 2011, on average the purchasing power of full-time faculty salaries declined by 1.5 percent. For community college faculty in some states, purchasing power declined by as much as 7 percent over the same period. Moreover, up to 70 percent of community college faculty are “contingent”—poorly paid part timers, typically by the course and without benefits. (Sources: Faculty Salaries, 2010-2011, Suzanne B. Clery; States and Higher Education: On Their Own in a Stagnant Economy, William Zumeta).  We know; however, that student persistence and completion improves with the expertise and guidance of full-time faculty and staff.  Investment in faculty and staff directly benefits students. 

NEA believes that anyone who is qualified and interested in post-secondary education should have the opportunity, regardless of ability to pay. Toward that end, NEA believes that:  

  • Need-based aid must be increased to restore the purchasing power of Pell Grants. 
  • Student loans must be made more affordable with low interest rates, by limiting the percentage of income spent on student loan repayment, and by reinstating the refinancing of existing loans.
  • Public service careers must be encouraged by expanding loan forgiveness programs for critical public service careers such as education. 

Congress passed the original GI bill because it recognized that higher education is good for students, good for the economy, and good for society at large. More contemporary evidence from recent OECD reports on education around the globe demonstrates that remains the case today. Higher education is the path to prosperity in the 21st century—for individual students and for our nation as a whole. Making college affordable needs to be an essential part of our nation’s commitment to educational excellence.

Thank you again for holding a hearing on this very important issue. 

Sincerely,

Kim Anderson 
Director, Center for Advocacy

Mary Kusler
Director, Government Relations