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Letter to the Senate HELP Committee on College Costs

September 12, 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 your continued focus on college affordability, including this week’s hearing on “Improving College Affordability: A View From the States.”

Despite important gains realized by Congress in 2007-2010 and the Obama administration, the problem of student debt remains enormous.   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. A recent report from the Project on Student Debt estimates that “two-thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2010 had student loan debt, with an average of $25,250 among those with debt.” A copy of the full report is attached for your information.  

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

States also need to do more to avoid shifting costs to students and their families.  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. [1] 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.[2]

Finally we must maintain our investment in the infrastructure of higher education. We know 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. Yet, 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.[3]

Thank you again for holding hearings on this very important topic.  We look forward to continuing to work with you to address these critical issues. 


Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations

[1] Grapevine Project, Center for the Study of Education Policy, Illinois State University, 2012.  

[2] 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. 

[3] Faculty Salaries, 2010-2011, Suzanne B. Clery; States and Higher Education: On Their Own in a Stagnant Economy, William Zumeta.