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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

S. 2194. A bill to award grants in order to establish longitudinal personal college readiness and savings online platforms for low-income students; to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Mr. COONS. Mr. President, parents in my home State of Delaware and all across this country worry so much and work so hard for the future of their children--for their health, their safety, their education, and their future. I rise today as a parent of three young children and the son and grandson of classroom teachers to talk about how we can pull together to provide all the tools and resources parents, teachers, mentors, and students need to understand, to afford, and to connect with college opportunities in this country.

Why do we need a new solution to this longstanding problem of college access? Well, let's just look at some statistics from this recent tough recession we are still growing our way out of.

The unemployment rate amongst high school dropouts was 13 percent; amongst those who had finished high school, 8 percent; and amongst those who had a college degree, just 4 percent. That is an enormous difference. That is millions of people unemployed because they didn't finish their high school education and go on to some higher education.

In the new global economy, Americans who don't go on to college have less than $1 million in lifetime earning potential compared to those who do go to college. That $1 million difference is something that--if parents and teachers and students were aware of it at the beginning of their education--it might drive them to make very different choices.

As a Senator, I have met with dozens of folks who lead companies or who are innovators and job creators who have said they have vacant positions they can't fill because we are not graduating enough Americans with advanced degrees and training in critical opportunities--engineering, science, technology, and math.

Filling the gap of opportunity by connecting students, teachers, parents, and mentors and creating a new generation of higher education achievers is something we can and should do to help create a competitive economy and workforce for the future. That is why today I am introducing the American Dream Accounts Act of 2012. This legislation encourages partnerships between schools, colleges, local nonprofits, and businesses to develop secure, Web-based, individual, portable student accounts that contain information about each student's academic preparedness, financial literacy, connects them to high-impact mentoring, and is tied to a college savings account. Instead of having each of these different resources be available to students separately, it connects them across existing silos and across existing education programs at the State and Federal level and, by connecting across these different silos, deploys a powerful new tool and resource for students, teachers, parents, and mentors.

This bill is a modest but I think powerful step toward helping more students of all income levels and backgrounds access, afford, and complete a college education. And I am grateful to Senator Rubio of Florida and to Senator Bingaman of New Mexico in joining me as original cosponsors of this innovative solution.

Too many American kids today are cut off from the enormous potential and value of higher education. Today, just about 1 out of 10 children from low-income families will complete a college degree by the time they are 24. As I have already said, the economic consequences of that are one of the main drivers of unemployment and poverty in our modern economy. But with early action, with early engagement, we can help millions of Americans beat those odds.

Many years ago, early in my career, I had the opportunity to work with something called the national I Have a Dream Foundation, founded by Gene Lang, through which my family and I adopted a whole class of elementary kids from the East Side of Wilmington. All over this country, more than 100 similar groups, motivated individuals, and donors have engaged in sponsoring college education opportunities for kids beginning at a very early age.

What I saw firsthand in the dozen years I was actively engaged with the 50 kids in our I Have a Dream program was that young people who come from a community, a family, a school where there is little to no experience of college education get powerful and negative messages from an early age that college is not for them, that it is not affordable, that it is not accessible, and that it is not part of the plan for their future.

Similarly, kids who grow up in families where their parents went to school, their teachers went to school, went to college, get constant messages--subtle but powerful messages--about the value and importance of college. Folks who come from those backgrounds--whether it is college sports or pride in their own graduation or constant conversations about one's alma mater or visits to college campuses--from childhood hear about college as something that is an expected part of life.

Very few of the 50 Dreamers my family and I worked with had any expectation of a college education, and the most powerful thing we did was to change that, to open the door to college as a possibility from elementary school on. It showed and this program has shown time and again across the country that exciting and engaging not just young students but their parents, their teachers, and an array of mentors has a cumulative, powerful, positive impact.

The American Dream Accounts Act will expand on this idea and use modern social networking technology to bring together existing programs and deliver ideas that will work for more kids. And the good news is that by utilizing existing Department of Education funds, this legislation comes at no additional cost to taxpayers.

What makes the American Dream Accounts Act work is the unique ability to harness the power of currently available technology to address some of the biggest challenges in college access--first, connectivity. The journey from elementary school to finishing high school is long, and the journey from there to higher education is a longer one. So many students in our public schools all over this country disengage or even drop out along the way because they are not connected. They attend large and sometimes anonymous schools. Their parents are stretched too thin in this tough economy, trying to hang on to their jobs and housing, and, frankly, a dedicated cadre of teachers can only do so much. These kids, as they become less and less connected to a clear vision of their future, drop out or make choices that make it unlikely they will finish high school and go on to college.

American dream accounts take advantage of modern technology. They are a Facebook-inspired opportunity to deliver on secure, personalized hubs of information that would connect these kids, sustain and support them throughout the entire journey of education.

Second, it connects them with college savings opportunities. Senator Roth of Delaware long served as the chairman of the Finance Committee, and one of the greatest pieces of his legacy was the Roth IRA, helping to empower working families to save for retirement. Part of the American dream accounts is the idea of connecting young people to college savings accounts. Virtually every State has college savings programs. Yet they are not accessed by most working- and middle-class Americans. Connecting students to college savings accounts from their earliest ages has a powerful impact. Studies show that students who know there is a dedicated college savings account in their name are seven times more likely to go to college than their peers without one. So this legislation would help open an individual savings account for each enrolled student from the beginning of elementary school. It matters less how much money is in the account than that students are aware there is one.

The third piece of this program is early intervention. State and Federal governments already spend billions of dollars on higher education--on Pell grants at the Federal level and in my State of Delaware on SEED grants. We provide these millions of dollars of support to afford college, but we don't tell kids they are there until they are in high school. Most kids have already made decisions by then that make them ineligible to finish high school or attend college. So why not tell them earlier, particularly given the powerful potential impact of that information.

By letting children know these opportunities exist from the earliest age, we can change outcomes.

Last is portability. One of the things I saw in my own experience with my own Dreamers in Delaware was how often they moved and how often overstretched teachers with full classrooms didn't get any information or background on students who moved into their classroom halfway through the year. So instead of being welcomed and engaged in a positive way, they became discipline problems or were difficult to teach. This robust, online, secure account would empower teachers to connect with parents and mentors and understand the students who are before them. That is why portability and persistence is an essential feature of American dream accounts. This way, no matter what disruptions or challenges a student might face as they travel through education, their American dream account would travel with them. Supportive adults, teachers, mentors, and guidance counselors would be able to access this information, and kids would get a consistent understanding of the value and impact of a future college education.

One of my favorite parts of drafting this legislation was the meetings and conversations we had with those on the front lines of education in Delaware. As a community, I heard over and over again: We are hungry for innovative solutions. One of the many groups I met with was the Delaware PTA. In endorsing the American Dream Accounts Act, they said that it ``incorporates the school, the parent and the student to ensure each child will be closely monitored with resources and support that is needed to access a postsecondary education.''

The fact is our Nation's long-term economic competitiveness requires a highly trained, highly educated workforce. We can meet that challenge by connecting students with a broad array of higher education options--vocational school, job training, community college, or a 4-year university. This legislation will help students identify the type of higher education that is best for them, the career they most want, and give them the tools to get there.

I have visited with schools across Delaware, and one thing is clear. One vision stays with me from my time at I Have a Dream to my service as a Senator. When you ask a roomful of elementary school kids, what do you dream of being when you grow up, they all shoot their hands in the air and they all answer the question in the same way regardless of their background or income or community. Every child begins with dreams of a full, positive educational experience and career. All of our kids start with big dreams, but the numbers show that not all of our kids get them. The American Dream Accounts Act of 2012 is a modest but powerful bill designed to empower students and parents of all backgrounds to achieve those dreams from an early age.

Mr. President, I welcome support from other of my colleagues to make this bill a reality.


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