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Letter to the Senate on Higher Education Costs

April 15, 2013

Dear Senator: 

On behalf of the more than three million members of the National Education Association, we would like to offer the following views in connection with the April 16 hearing, “The Challenge of College Affordability: The Student Lens.” 

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 families have risen, and five times the rate at which the earnings of low-income families have risen. A recent report from the Institute for College Access & Success, Student Debt and the Class of 2011, estimates that “two-thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had student loan debt, with an average of $26,600 among those with debt.” 

NEA believes that anyone who is qualified and interested in post-secondary education should have the opportunity to obtain it, regardless of ability to pay. For low- and middle-income students and their families, affordable federal student loan programs are essential. 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 by keeping interest rates low, limiting the percentage of income spent on student loan repayment, and reinstating the refinancing of existing loans.
  • Public-service careers must be encouraged by expanding loan forgiveness programs in critical fields, such as education.  

These goals will be undermined if student loan rates are allowed to double, as they are scheduled to do at the end of June. President Obama’s recently released budget for 2014 proposes a long-term solution to the problem, but Congress cannot delay action on student loan rates until a budget is passed. At a minimum, our nation’s students need a short-time fix that provides the certainty they need to plan for the fall semester.

Allowing student loan rates to double would exacerbate the problem of mounting barriers to higher education as costs are shifted to struggling students and their parents, many of whom are struggling financially themselves. 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).

At the federal level, the switch to direct loans has saved students and taxpayers money, and helped make college affordable. The states, however, 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. (Source: Grapevine Project, Center for the Study of Education Policy, Illinois State University, 2012).

In addition, it is essential to invest in elements of the higher education infrastructure that benefit students directly. We know that the expertise and guidance of full-time faculty and staff encourage students to persist and complete college. Further, a lack of advising staff deprives students of counselors who can help them navigate course requirements so they graduate sooner.   

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 is still the case. Making college affordable needs to be an essential part of our nation’s commitment to educational excellence.  

We look forward to working with you to strengthen the federal student loan programs that make it possible for millions of students all across America to go to college and travel the path to prosperity.  

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations