Today, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) spoke to students at Penn State University in State College, PA where he outlined an Education Bill of Rights to promote accessibility to higher education and student debt forgiveness for public service.
Senator Specter began by highlighting some troubling statistics:
* College costs have grown nearly 40% in the past five years;
* 60% of all college graduates leave college with debt; the average graduate leaves college nearly $20,000 in debt;
* Between 2001 and 2010, two million academically qualified students will not have gone to college because they could not afford it;
* Only 12% of Hispanics and 16% of African Americans eventually earn a bachelor's degree -- compared with 33% of white students.
An outline of his Senator Specter's Education Bill of Rights follows:
I. Accessibility to Higher Education
The key to accessibility is affordability. During Senator Specter's tenure on the education appropriations subcommittee, he has led the fight to increase Pell Grant availability. This important financial aid program makes post-secondary education more affordable for our nation's neediest students. Today, the total (discretionary and mandatory) maximum Pell Grant award is $5,550, due in part to Senator Specter's leadership. The discretionary portion of the award has increased from $2,470 in fiscal year 1996 when Senator Specter became Chairman of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee to today's level of $4,860, an increase of $2,390 or 97%. Additionally, during Senator Specter's leadership on the subcommittee, the availability of federal guaranteed student loans increased, allowing more students to access post-secondary education. In the 2008-2009 academic school year, over $31.9 billion in federally subsidized Stafford loans were distributed throughout our nation, an increase of 45% since the $21.9 billion distributed in the 1998-1999 academic year.
While Pell Grants help many students obtain a higher education, it is clear that more has to be done. In fact, it is estimated that between 2001 and 2010, two million academically qualified students will not have gone to college because they could not afford it.
Senator Specter strongly advocated for and supported the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, which will gradually increase the Pell Grant award starting in 2013 from $5,550 to $5,975.
This is a good start to helping our nation's students afford, and have access to, higher education. But we must do more to support accessibility to higher education.
II. Increased Opportunities for Minorities
Only 12% of Hispanics and 16% of African Americans eventually earn a bachelor's degree -- compared with 33% of white students. The rising cost of college is a factor in this disparity.
Senator Specter has been a strong advocate for increasing opportunities for underserved minorities, and has supported legislation that targeted much-needed assistance to underserved minorities. The recently passed education reconciliation legislation will invest $2.55 billion in Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions. These schools enroll nearly 60% of minority undergraduates in the United States and have been particularly hard hit due to state budget cuts and shrinking endowments. The funding provided by this legislation will help increase opportunities for underserved minorities and will help these students rise to their fullest potential.
As Chairman of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, Senator Specter worked to secure funding for GEAR UP, which provides tutoring, financial aid counseling and college scholarships to low-income students from the seventh grade through high school graduation. Since the program began in fiscal year 1999, Senator Specter has helped increase funding from the initial $120 million to $323 million in fiscal year 2010, an increase of $203 million or 169%.
Additionally, Senator Specter has been a strong advocate for the TRIO program, which provides student support services to participants who are from low-income families and are first-generation college students. Senator Specter has helped increase funding from $463 million in fiscal year 1996 to $853 million in fiscal year 2010, an increase of $390 million or 84%.
These are wise investments, but we must do more to expand educational opportunities for our nation's underserved minorities.
III. Increased Capacity to Educate More Medical Personnel: Doctors,
Nurses, and Technicians
Health care reform's embrace of some 32 million previously uninsured Americans has created a need for 16,000 doctors and nurses. Ways must be found to make medical education more affordable and accompanying debt burdens less onerous.
This is of particular importance as we shift to a medical system that proactively treats patients and seeks to improve health concerns before they become problems. To make this change, we must grow the number of primary care physicians and health professionals.
Currently, the National Health Service Corps loan repayment program offers primary care workers, including physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants $50,000 in loan repayment in exchange for two years of service in a Health Professional Shortage Area. The health reform package provides increased funding for this program and will provide loan repayments to over 8,000 individuals - five times more than currently funded.
Loan repayment programs are vital for all health care professionals, not just primary care practitioners. To that end, the health reform package establishes new loan repayment programs for pediatric specialists, mental health specialists and public health workers who work in underserved areas. The health reform package also sought to improve student loans for nurses by increasing the total loan amount for students of nursing from $13,000 to $17,000.
Senator Specter supported these initiatives, as well as others that will benefit Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation. He is a cosponsor of a bill with Senator Bob Casey, the Medical School Construction Grant Act, to support medical schools to increase the supply of physicians. This bill would provide grants to medical schools for construction, renovation and improvement to facilities. The program would give priority to medical schools that create a new branch of an existing school and to those that serve a medically underserved area. Several schools in Pennsylvania could benefit from this grants program, including Franklin and Marshal College who has expressed interest in increasing their medical education opportunities.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Specter has worked to secure funding for colleges, universities and medical schools in Pennsylvania to support and expand important medical programs and projects. For example, Senator Specter recently secured over $1.28 million for The Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton, PA.
IV. Debt Forgiveness to Encourage Graduates to Public Service
The College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 established the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which provides debt forgiveness to borrowers who repay their federal student loans while serving in the public sector. Borrowers are required to repay 10 years worth of their loans while concurrently employed in public service jobs and after this commitment, the borrowers' remaining debts will be forgiven by the federal government. Under this program, public service includes: federal, state, or local government, emergency management, military service, public safety, law enforcement, public interest law, early childhood education, public education and public health.
The recently passed health care legislation expanded this student loan forgiveness program to allied health professionals working in health professional shortage and underserved areas. As a central part of our health system, physical therapists, nutritionists, psychologists and other health providers need assistance to grow their ranks.
This important legislation also expanded the Income Based Repayment (IBR) plan, which will allow new borrowers in 2014 to cap their federal student loan repayments at 10 percent of their discretionary income. Furthermore, students enrolled in this program who make their qualified monthly payments for 20 years will have the balance of their debt forgiven by the federal government. A reduced burden of debt will surely have a positive impact on those who are trying to find a way to afford their education.
Senator Specter is a strong supporter of these programs and will continue to work to strengthen and expand similar initiatives.
V. Establish an Assistant Secretary of Education for Evaluation and
Expansion of the Education Bill of Rights
The U.S. Department of Education should establish an Assistant Secretary who will evaluate and promote this Education Bill of Rights. In this role, the Assistant Secretary should examine what has been done thus far, and what further actions should still be taken to increase: 1) accessibility to higher education, 2) opportunities for underserved minorities, 3) capacity to educate more medical personnel, and 4) debt forgiveness to encourage graduates to enter public service.
Additionally, the impact of the Health Care and Reconciliation Act should be evaluated to determine the effectiveness of the educational grants and financial assistance programs, and to make further recommendations for increased grant funding and other necessary steps to enhance the objectives of this Bill of Rights.