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Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2014

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Ms. BALDWIN. Making college affordable is one of the most important steps we can take toward completing our economic recovery and ensuring a path to the middle class for all Americans. As a Nation, we are still working to recover from the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Access to student loans at affordable interest rates represents an incredibly important piece of this vital recovery.

I often use a quote of President Obama that he included in his State of the Union Address a couple of years ago. It says to win the future, we must outeducate, outinnovate, and outbuild the rest of the world. I believe we do this best by supporting our students and investing in their future.

Unfortunately, the Student Loan Certainty Act on the floor today is a step in the wrong direction. A college education should be a path to prosperity, a path to the middle class, not a path to indebtedness.

As many of my colleagues have described, the bill before us today offers students and families lower student loan interest rates in the near term, but we can fully expect higher student loan interest rates in the years to come.

For families with multiple children who are college bound, their children's education becomes more expensive in each ensuing year. This means that under this plan, a current freshman in college may get a decent student loan interest rate for a few years, but a current freshman in high school will end up with rates much higher than the cap contained in current U.S. law.

Not only does this legislation raise long-term interest rate loans for students, it fails to close tax loopholes. It does not ask the wealthy to pay their fair share, and it burdens students who can least afford it with deficit reduction.

The bill before us lacks a true vision for outeducating the rest of the world. It doesn't ask our country to invest in the future, nor does it offer a comprehensive solution to college affordability. Rather, it offers a poor permanent fix and slaps students and their families with the bill.

I remind my colleagues that there were multiple alternative solutions proposed before Congress slumped over the July 1 deadline that doubled the interest rates on student loans. I supported two measures offered by my colleague from Rhode Island, Senator Reed, that would have paid for lower interest rates for students by closing tax loopholes for the very wealthy in our country. The Senate twice voted on Senator Reed's proposals and they received a majority vote each time.

We are also making a good-faith effort to address the shortcomings of the bill before us to work toward a deal that would be a true win for students and their families. The Reed-Warren amendment, which I proudly cosponsor, would impose a lower cap to protect student borrowers. Why on Earth would we wish to expose our students to higher rates?

Senator Sanders' amendment would sunset the current deal in 2 years and allow for a return to regular order so Congress can rightly deal with interest rates and a host of other issues that affect college costs. These amendments are sound improvements to the underlying bill that would allow us to invest in students and families, rather than obfuscate the student loan and debt problem. I am disappointed that we have reached the point where debates about the future of college affordability are less about the lives of students and their families and more about protecting loopholes for corporations and the wealthy.

It wasn't always this way. In 1944, starting with the compact to returning soldiers from World War II made through the GI bill, our Nation made a commitment to future progress by investing in education. Between 1944 and 1951, 8 million veterans received education benefits, including many former distinguished Members of this body.

In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, signed the National Defense Education Act, providing loans for college students and funds to encourage young people to enter teaching careers, the precursor to our current program for student loans.

President Lyndon Johnson built upon this legacy. A cornerstone of the Great Society was a path to the middle class through a college education.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 gave us the Federal student loan program, known today as the Stafford Loan Program, and the Educational Opportunity Grant Program, known today as the Pell Grant Program. This generation of American lawmakers lived in trying times--winning a war, fulfilling the dream of the civil rights movement--yet they still had the foresight to make the hard choices, the choices necessary to invest in the future--our future.

Legislation I supported as a Member of the House of Representatives built on this investment and lowered the subsidized Stafford loan rate to 3.4 percent, which was the rate at which students borrowed until July 1. We recognized that investing in students is important, and lowering rates is a part of that investment.

The fact that State investment in higher education has declined significantly over the past decades has exacerbated the problem. Particularly as States struggle to balance their budgets in these tough economic times, their investments in students have decreased, meaning higher tuition, fewer grants, and fewer scholarships.

I hear regularly from Wisconsin students that the cost of higher education in my State puts college out of reach for some. Thirty years ago undergraduate tuition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was about $1,000. Today it is well over $8,000. And it is not just my home State of Wisconsin. Across the country tuition at public 4-year colleges has tripled. This means more students are borrowing through Federal student loan programs to cover the higher cost of higher education. For students at the University of Wisconsin System, unmet needs after grants and scholarships is over $9,000--nearly doubling in the last decade. Yet the Federal Government limits on subsidized loans have remained relatively stagnant over the past 30 years. In many cases the limits on what a student can borrow through the Stafford Loan Program means their loans will not even cover the cost of their tuition.

This is what it all comes down to--a series of choices. Are we going to sacrifice the progress of our next generation because we are unwilling to do the hard work and make those tough choices now? Are we going to gradually chip away at the ladders of opportunity put in place by the generations before to lift Americans into the middle class and out of poverty; do we ask the wealthy to pay a little bit more; do we ask corporations to pay their fair share. Or do we say to students: You are on your own; sink or swim.

I say to students across Wisconsin and this great country: We should all be in this together. We must continue this compact from one generation to the next. The veteran who was educated on the GI bill wants to see his neighbor's children able to afford college. The teacher who earned her education through the Pell Grant Program wants the same opportunity for her students. The mother who attended college through the Stafford Loan Program does not want to see her savings for retirement depleted or her children sapped with debt.

I reject sacrificing the progress of the next generation because we are unwilling to do the hard work and make the hard choices now. I reject shortchanging the next generation of young Americans by making college more expensive and then using the profits from their high interest rates to pay down the deficit, particularly when we ask the wealthiest to contribute nothing.

If we are to win the future, we must make the hard important choices now. For this reason and for the hard-working people of Wisconsin, I oppose this bill, and I urge my colleagues to do the same.

I yield the floor.


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