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Public Statements

Higher Education Affordability

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. COURTNEY. Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to spend some time on the floor this evening. I will be joined by other colleagues, we anticipate, to talk about an issue which is front and center for millions of families all across the country.

As my poster next to me indicates, there is actually a very critical deadline that's approaching this country in terms of the issue of higher education affordability, about helping families pay for college, one of the biggest challenges that middle class families face today.

Back in 2007, Congress made a very positive, progressive move when it enacted the College Cost Reduction Act, a measure which addressed issues that had been long neglected by prior Congresses in terms of helping students and families pay for college. The College Cost Reduction Act, in particular, took aim at the Stafford student loan program, a loan program that helps lower-income and middle-income students pay for college. It's a program which has been on the books since the 1960s; but over the late 1990s into the early 2000s, the interest rate in the Stafford student loan program had fluttered upwards to 6.8 percent, almost the same levels at what private banks were offering for student loans.

The College Cost Reduction Act in 2007 correctly moved forward to cut the interest rate for that program to make it more affordable for students, again, who are facing ever rising tuition increases in both public and private universities and colleges--2-year programs, you name it--all across the country. As a result of that measure, which passed by a bipartisan vote in this House--we had 77 Republicans who joined the Democratic majority that was in control at that time--it was sent to the Senate. Approximately two dozen Republicans voted in favor of the Stafford student loan program, and it was sent to President Bush, who signed it into law. That measure has helped 15 million students with lower interest rate costs pay for college.

That measure was sunset. It had an expiration date of July 1, 2012. As my poster indicates, that's a date which, today, is 73 days away for families and students who today are trying to budget for next year's school year. That deadline will, in effect, return the interest rate back to where it was back in 2007. It will double the interest rate from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent unless Congress acts.

President Obama, during his State of the Union Address, alerted this Congress and the Nation to the fact that at a time when student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt and car debt, we must, as a Congress, move quickly to make sure that we lock in that rate at 3.4 percent; otherwise, students who use this program, it's been calculated, will have added debt levels of between $5,000 and $10,000.

Now, in terms of the stakes that exist right now for what that means, this chart--which is from a figure that was produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York--shows again, vividly, the challenge that we face as a Nation, that student loan debt now, as I mentioned earlier, exceeds credit card debt. It exceeds car loan debt. For many families, particularly if you're talking about going to a 4-year private college, it literally is like buying a house to try and figure out ways to pay for college.

So if we do not act, if we do not lock in that lower rate of 3.4 percent between now and July 1--the 73-day deadline that we face, literally, as we stand here today--we will, in fact, compound that bar graph which shows, again, rising debt levels for students who are trying to pay for college.

The stakes could not be bigger for our Nation.

Back in the 1980s, America was number one in terms of graduation rates across the world. Today, the national College Board--which tracks this data and has been doing it for decades--reports to us that the U.S. now ranks 12th in the world in terms of graduation rates. That is a dynamic for mediocrity. That is a dynamic that says that our country is not going to be able to produce the workforce that we need for the future in terms of facing all the technological challenges, all the competitive challenges that we face as a Nation. We here in Congress have that power within our hands to at least avoid worsening the situation that, again, has now, in my opinion, reached epidemic, critical proportions in terms of this country's capacity to refresh its workforce.

The Republican majority has leadership which recently talked about this issue. The chairwoman of the Higher Education Subcommittee, when asked last week on a radio program about the issue of student loan debt, basically stated very clearly that she has very little

tolerance for people who tell her that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there's no reason for that. Well, this morning's Wall Street Journal had a very long story about a couple who are exactly in this predicament, where they are carrying $74,000 of student loan debt, making monthly payments of approximately $900 a month. The headline basically is that student loan debt is deferring marriage and children for young people.

Frankly, that is an issue which is being compounded in terms of young people being able to go out and look for work and not be haunted or burdened--almost smothered and buried--by student loan debt. That affects the vitality of our economy. It affects, really, the career path of many of our young people who, at that point in life, really should be maximizing their attempts to really experiment and to innovate and to be, again, the leaders of a new generation in terms of taking this country to new heights.

This is a sad statement of the priorities of the majority that's controlling this Congress, which, again, at a point where we literally have before us in 73 days a choice to make in terms of whether or not we are going to avoid this explosion in interest rates, we have a leadership which basically says they have no sympathy or tolerance.

You know, as we're sitting here tonight, Capitol Hill is being visited in Members' offices hour after hour by organizations like dental students, nursing students, folks who, again, are very excited about starting their careers and have issues about policy that we're taking up here in their different professions. In each instance, when you asked a dental student, ``Well, what kind of student loan debt do you have?'' or a nurse anesthetist, ``What kind of student loan do you have?''--and they were in my office a couple days ago--in every instance, their debt levels exceeded the levels that the chairwoman of the Higher Education Subcommittee was talking about.

We need a Congress which is not out of touch with middle class families and young people in this country. We need a Congress which is ready to move forward with the need to lock in that lower interest rate so that, again, we do not compound this problem of student loan debt skyrocketing in increases.

There is legislation which is pending, H.R. 3826, a measure which I introduced, and now we have over 120 cosponsors in the House Democratic Caucus--I'm joined here this evening by some of the folks who have joined in that effort--that would lock in that rate, that would say that, You know what? This is a priority that really matters in terms of the future of this country, which is to invest in young people, to help middle class families deal with, again, probably as big a challenge as either buying a home or trying to save and prepare for retirement.

For us, at a time when the Federal Reserve is lending money almost for free, when home mortgage interest rates are about 3.1 percent for a 30-year mortgage and even lower for a variable rate, to say that we are going to stand here and turn our backs and allow interest rates for the Stafford student loan program--one of the workhorse, bedrock programs for middle class families to pay for college--to go from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent is unconscionable. It is unforgivable. We cannot let this happen.

Here this evening on the floor I've been joined by some Members who agree and have been working hard on this issue back home, getting the word out in their States, and also have cosponsored this legislation and have joined us to talk a little bit about this issue from their perspective.

Congressman Cicilline from Rhode Island was here first, and I am pleased to yield to my neighbor from Rhode Island. Thank you, sir, for joining us here this evening.


Mr. COURTNEY. Thank you, Congressman Cicilline. And I'm glad you mentioned Senator Reid. Actually, we had an event in front of the Capitol a couple of weeks

ago where Public Interest Research Group dropped off 130,000 petition signatures from college campuses all across America, and they are going to go out and get even more because, as I said, 15 million college students benefited from that rate cut in 2007; 8 million will be impacted if we do nothing with higher interest rates.

Someone who can speak on this issue as knowledgeably as almost anyone, literally, in the House or Senate, in the U.S. Congress is Congressman Bishop, again, my neighbor across Long Island Sound in the State of New York. Again, thank you for joining us here tonight, Tim, and I yield to your comments.


Mr. COURTNEY. I thank the gentleman.

Again, someone who's been a leader on this issue, first sponsor after we introduced the bill is Congressman Gary Peters from Michigan, so we're not all from New England and New York on the floor here this evening because this is a national issue; and thank you for joining us, Congressman Peters.


Mr. COURTNEY. Mr. Peters, as to your comment about why this should not be a partisan issue, I just want to reiterate the fact that when we cut the rate back in 2007, 77 Republicans in the House voted with the Democratic majority to implement that law, and there were over two dozen Republican Senators in the Senate who voted for it. George W. Bush signed it into law.

Ironically, the Stafford student loan program, which we've talked about a lot here this evening--and a lot of people are familiar with it, but some, I think, would be interested to know--was named after a Republican Senator, Robert Stafford from Vermont, who was a passionate advocate for education just like Senator Pell from Rhode Island was. This, again, used to be an issue that was nonpartisan totally. Abraham Lincoln was the force that started land-grant colleges in the middle of

the Civil War. I mean, it's amazing to think about that, that he just had such vision during the worst conflict in American history to say, you know, we still need to be investing in the future of this country and so started the land-grant process. Stafford from Vermont was another guy who certainly represented a party that, at that time, would have easily understood the fact that we cannot create new barriers at a time when historic levels of debt are rising to a point which exceed credit card debt and student loan debt.

Mr. Bishop, in your experience as a college administrator, you know. I mean, we are now in late April, and kids are literally getting notices from colleges in their mailboxes today. People are going to have to start planning in terms of how to pay for college. Again, notices are already being sent out to people, saying, you know, you may or may not have this rate right now. So it's changing family decisions literally by the inaction. Frankly, we should not have to wait 73 days. We should do this this week. We shouldn't go home until this gets done, because families need to have some horizon in terms of planning a decision that literally is almost as big as buying a house.

Then I know, Mr. Cicilline, you were up on your feet, and I just want to keep contact.


Mr. COURTNEY. Congressman Bishop was around before the 2006 election and was there when we passed the 2007 College Cost Reduction Act. I believe, frankly, that it is because there was an unprecedented boost in involvement by young people. The 18- to 29-year-old voter turnout in 2006 was a historic high for a midterm election. Frankly, it did slip in the last cycle.

When I'm out at the University of Connecticut or other State universities in higher education, I tell that story about how in 2006, the issue of higher education was front and center. It was an issue that was a national issue in the 2006 campaign that we put forward to cut the interest rate. And frankly, I think the power of that issue and the message of that election from young voters turning out in record numbers basically kind of shook this place up, and people recognized that they've got to start doing something for higher education. I think in 2010, there was a bit of a slip and this issue kind of lost focus.

Again, I think as we get closer to this incredible doubling of interest rates on July 1--when I talk to

people back home when I've done a number of events like you and others have, people greet that with absolute disbelief because they know how mortgage interest rates are, they see what banks are getting from the Federal Reserve, they see what the Treasury bonds are selling for. To say that this one segment of the economy--college students--is going to have a 6.8 percent rate in terms of a loan program is totally unacceptable. That's why, I think, this event we're doing here this evening--and certainly the efforts from PIRG with 130,000 petition signatures--is a way, again, that we can shake this place up again and avoid this catastrophe.


Mr. COURTNEY. I can give a local example of an employer in our area, which Mr. Cicilline knows well--and so do you, TIM--which is Electric Boat, which has a new design project where they're going to be hiring about 300-plus new engineers and draftsmen.

They are scouring the countryside trying to find mechanical engineers. Again, these are high-value jobs. The fact of the matter is that it's a struggle out there to get these folks with hard science degrees for, again, really good openings that exist in our economy right now. They're going to get there. There is no question that's going to happen.

The fact of the matter is that opportunities like that are going to definitely continue to grow as this economy heals and recovers. We want to make sure these young people, again, have not been discouraged from having that chance to take hold of that opportunity when that time comes because of really just the indifference of this body to deal with an issue which, again, just goes to the heart of creating opportunity.

This chart, sadly, when we started it, it was 75 days when the rate was going to go up. Obviously, yesterday, it was 74, today is 73. We are going to continue to make sure that this countdown clock is front and center before the people of this country so that they know that here in this body we have control of this issue, direct control of this issue. Many other issues are so complex and affect a small part of the economy and the country. This is a broad-based issue that affects 8 million college students across America that we have a set deadline. Either we do it or we don't and, again, this colloquy this evening, again, I think is going to be part of the effort to build the noise to make sure that we do it.


Mr. COURTNEY. Well, again, I think you are going to have a really powerful event when you do that. Again, I think the media who have been covering this issue, in many instances they either have children in college or they themselves are still carrying student-loan debt. This issue touches really just a huge cross-section of the country.

To say and to point out the fact which, again, a lot of people aren't aware of, interest rates are going to double on July 1 from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent unless Congress acts. Again, it is something that people just can't even comprehend the fact that at this moment in the economy, when interest rates are so much lower across the board, that this one segment, college students, particularly entering college students, kids who are in high school today, frankly, have almost as much, if not more, at stake than kids who are presently enrolled in college to make sure that this place hears their voices and listens and, most importantly, acts to avoid this totally unwarranted increase in college borrowing costs from a program which has a proud bipartisan history. Thank you both for joining me here this evening.

I look forward to getting a bill signing soon to protect these interest rates.

I yield back the balance of my time.

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