U.S. House Dems advance sweeping effort to lower higher education costs

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. House committee passed legislation on Thursday that supporters hailed as a “down payment” on a long-sought goal for progressives: free college education for all.

The sweeping measure sponsored by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., aims to help more Americans of all backgrounds obtain high-quality college degrees by increasing affordability, accountability and accessibility in higher education.

It would fund states that waive tuition at community colleges and invest in their public colleges and universities, which proponents say would lower costs for students and families. It would also increase federal education grants, crack down on “predatory” for-profit colleges and strengthen supports for low-income students and students of color, among other things.

The bill — an update of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, which hasn’t been reauthorized in more than a decade — cleared the House Education and Labor Committee on party lines Thursday morning. The committee’s 28 Democrats all voted in its favor and the committee’s 22 Republicans all voted in opposition.

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, voted for the bill. Republican U.S. Reps. Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson, R-5th District; Lloyd Smucker, R-11th District, Dane Meuser, R-9th District, and Fred Keller, R-12th District, all voted against it.

Three measures sponsored by Wild, a freshman from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, were included in the bill that moved out of committee on Thursday. The bills would streamline student borrowing, increase access to higher education for disabled students and improve mental health programs on college campuses.

“Central to our country’s promise is the notion that each new generation can have a better life than the one that came before. For much of our history, this notion was widely accepted throughout our society,” Wild said Thursday. “Today, we are on course to profoundly disrupt this cycle … We, Republicans and Democrats alike, must work together to invest in our common future.”

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Proponents called the legislation an important step toward universal access to an affordable college education, a goal articulated more than a half century ago when President Lyndon Johnson first signed the HEA into law in 1965. 

At the time, Johnson said the law meant that “a high school senior anywhere in this great land of ours can apply to any college or any university in any of the 50 states and not be turned away because his family is poor.” 

But that promise remains out of reach for many Americans, said Scott. “We must fulfill the promise of making higher education affordable for all students,” he said at the opening of a committee markup of the bill on Tuesday.

The panel’s Democrats agreed, voicing strong support during the markup, which stretched over three days this week and involved debate over dozens of amendments on issues ranging from campus child care to student health care to equity in higher education. 

The bill will “bring us closer to the vision of a higher education system that provides a ticket to America’s middle and upper class,” said Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C.

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U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said that it will “make a strong statement that everyone deserves access to a quality post-secondary education.”

Republicans, meanwhile, strongly objected to the measure, which carries an estimated price tag of $400 billion over 10 years.

The “partisan” legislation “throws billions and billions of dollars at a failing system,” said U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, of North Carolina, the committee’s highest-ranking Republican.

Smucker, the top Republican on the committee’s Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee, echoed the sentiment, saying it “doubles down on failed policies that are hurting students and American taxpayers.” 

Virginia’s Cline agreed. “We need to massively overhaul the system, get the federal government out of the way and create more workable options,” he said.

Michigan Republican Rep. Tim Walberg, meanwhile, accused Democrats of trying to “dictate every choice a student can make along the path of their post-secondary education.”

Skyrocketing costs 

The value of a bachelor’s degree is coming under heightened scrutiny, but experts say it is still a good investment for most people, with a high average rate of return. Scott made that point during the markup, calling a high-quality college degree “the surest path to financial security and a rewarding career.” 

Yet the cost of the path to a college diploma is climbing, leaving millions of Americans in debt.

Over the last decade, the average annual cost of tuition and fees rose by $930 (in 2018 dollars) at public two-year colleges, $2,670 at public four-year institutions and $7,390 at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities, according to a 2018 College Board report.

Higher sticker prices are due in part to state funding cuts to higher education over the last decade, according to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

Overall, and after adjusting for inflation, state funding for public colleges was $6.6 billion less in 2018 than it was in 2008, before the Great Recession, the report finds. These cuts deter enrollment among low-income students and students of color, undermining efforts to advance equity in higher education, according to the center.

Despite higher tuition costs, participation in the nation’s higher education system is on the rise. Over the last two decades, the percent of U.S. adults with an associate’s degree or higher has risen from 31 percent to 45 percent, according to the American Council on Education.

Scott’s bill — the College Affordability Act — now awaits action by the full House chamber, which is consumed by an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump and pressing legislative matters, including funding the government. It also faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled Senate, where lawmakers are working on higher education bills of their own.

At the outset of the markup, Pennsylvania’s Thompson, whose rural district sprawls across most of north-centrai Pennsylvania, predicted that the bill wouldn’t see “the light of day” in the Senate.