On Oct. 15, 2019, the House Committee on Education and Labor introduced the College Affordability Act (CAA) to overhaul the current system of increasing financial burden for higher education in the United States. This is the first update to the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 in over a decade. In a statement to the press, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) touched upon the $1.5 trillion in federal student loan debt carried by approximately 44 million Americans (The New York Times, “House Democrats Unveil Plan to Make College More Affordable,” 10.15.2019). Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (D-CT) hosted a Press Call on Oct. 28 to speak with collegiate newspapers, including The Miscellany News, to discuss the 1,165-page bill, which is still undergoing revisions by the Committee.
Scott joked, “Now, if you asked most Americans what Congress is doing these days, they would most likely say impeachment,” before going into the key features of the bill. The current cost of college in the United States averages out to $20,770 for public institutions and $46,950 for nonprofit private institutions, figures that steadily increase each year (ValuePenguin, “Average Cost of College in America: 2019 Report,” 2019). Democratic lawmakers intend for the CAA to lower the cost of college and increase the accessibility of higher education for low-income and middle-class families. In addition to provisions that one Committee aide stated would include the largest-ever increase in the value of Pell Grants and the elimination of hidden fees for student borrowers, the bill allocates funds for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and institutions that serve minorities—such as community colleges—and reintroduces accountability of on-campus sexual assault that is currently under attack from the Department of Education.
In the call, Scott toted the bill as the bearer of “comprehensive reform…that we need to make for the future.” Hayes, a freshman member of the 116th Congress and a former educator recognized as the National Teacher of the Year in 2016, reflected on the need for change in how families approach affording higher education: “These are things I’ve seen first-hand.” The bill is expected to cost $400 billion over a decade, more than half of which would go to reworking current student loan programs. Response to the bill has been controversial, with Senior Vice President for the American Council on Education Terry W. Hartle describing it as “a combination of good, bad, ugly and God only knows” (New York Times).
The question remains as to how this bill, particularly as it evolves after passing through the Committee and is sent to the Senate for further amendments, will realistically ease the burden of students and increase access to higher education. In an email to The Miscellany News, Director of Student Financial Services Michael Albano at Vassar College stated: “The College Affordability Act (CAA) is currently proposed legislation, so it would be too early for myself or the College to comment on it. We are monitoring the bill and its progress as it applies to the legislative process.”
Vassar, as part of its financial aid, provides students with either federally subsidized or unsubsidized loans. In the words of Scott, a central goal of the bill is to make federal loans “cheaper to take out, simpler to understand and easier to payoff.” Students may choose to reject the loans and increase an already steep price tag of $75,360—including direct and indirect costs for the 2019-20 academic year—or they may accept them and take out additional private loans. The bill offers refinancing options for students who choose private options, but the debt forgiveness for private loans differs from federal ones. Thus, one drawback of the already ambitious CAA is that it will not be as inclusive of middle-class students at private institutions who may not be eligible for federal aid but cannot afford to pay thousands in tuition.
One student, Hayley Craig ’22, spoke to her experiences about trying to afford Vassar: “Honestly, I feel a lot of guilt because my parents had to take out huge loans to pay for my tuition. After college, I’m going to have to work on paying those loans back, which is pretty fucking stressful to think about. My parents didn’t realize how much of a financial burden it was going to be … they considered pulling me from Vassar for a semester, but fortunately we haven’t had to do that.”
In addition to loans, one section of the CAA is currently dedicated to providing new funding and increased flexibility for work-study positions, which Congresswoman Hayes believes will foster development programs and community service. However, institutions would still be responsible for the distribution of work-study funds and the creation of jobs. Another Vassar student, Alexander Wolstenholme-Britt ’22, spoke about his frustrations with jobs on campus: “If I am on federal work-study as a part of my financial aid, the College is required to provide me with a job. I applied to about 50 jobs … heard back from less than 10 and interviewed for about four … the difficulty of [the process] was crazy. The college is not making it easy enough for students that need an on-campus job, for their loans or their livelihoods, to get a job in time … The reality is that a lot of the hundreds of jobs that are being posted are not available.”
Further reflecting on his experiences with the high demand and limited availability of jobs, Wolstenholme-Britt revealed how one department “asked Student Employment for 15 paid student positions, only five of which have actually been filled.” He continued, “So now there are 10 positions that have been pre-allocated that aren’t being filled.”
In the previous academic year, an on-campus controversy regarding the College’s use of work-study funds to pay students below minimum wage is an issue Wolstenholme-Britt hopes has been resolved: “I think it’s great that Vassar raised what they pay students to New York State’s minimum wage, but I don’t understand how they were paying students below minimum wage beforehand … That’s something [the CAA] should address, because students should not be paid less than minimum wage for the state that they live in.”
The future of the CAA is remarkably uncertain. Still, in his opening statements during the Committee’s session to mark up the document on Oct. 29, Scott remarked that the bill is an investment to fulfill the HEA’s promise of making higher education more accessible to all. In the midst of conflict between the executive branch and Congress, it is significant that steps are being taken to alleviate the student debt crisis not only for generations past but for the United States’ posterity. Studies show that individuals with a bachelor’s degree will make roughly a million more dollars than those with only high school diplomas, as per Scott. However, as it moves between parties, the bill must ensure that specific changes are made to protect students in both public and private institutions.
Regarding the current draft, Craig stated, “I hope that the [final draft] will actually make it easier for me to get out of debt. I don’t really know all the details of it, but student loan debt is a huge issue and I really hope we start to see more bills aimed at tackling it.”