Higher education is becoming increasingly important to achieving the American dream, yet more and more Americans are being priced out of the promise and opportunity that higher education provides. Democrats recognize that students and their families are struggling to cover the rising cost of college and have made college affordability a top priority. Moreover, while there has been much discussion about the need to eliminate the achievement gap among elementary and secondary school students, the President and Republican-controlled Congress have failed to adequately support our neediest schools and students.
That is why Congress, under Democratic leadership, is committed to investing in education and improving our nation’s schools — to prepare our workforce to compete in the global economy, make college more affordable, and improve student achievement. While we have made a significant down payment towards achieving these ends, Senate Democrats are far from satisfied. All too often, the President and Bush-McCain Republicans have stood in the way of progress and refused to work with Democrats in good faith to address the needs of the nation. The American people are tired of these partisan tactics, and Senate Democrats share their frustration. That is why Democrats will not rest until we have fully addressed the key priorities of our nation. Democrats will continue to lead the way for change that benefits all Americans.
Congress passed a law to make college more affordable. Democrats recognize that college students – 11 percent of whom are Hispanic – and their families are struggling to cover the rising cost of college and have made college affordability a top priority. Thus, under Democratic leadership, Congress overwhelmingly approved the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which will increase access to higher education and direct federal dollars where they are needed most – to students.
This legislation will increase student aid for low- and middle-income students, providing over $20 billion in new student aid and benefits, the largest increase in student aid since the G.I. bill. The bill will also make student loan debt more manageable, forgive student loan debt for those who commit to public service, and reform the student loan system. Moreover, the legislation will provide benefits to students at no cost to taxpayers by reducing excessive lender subsidies and redirecting federal aid to students who need it most.
Approximately 25 percent of Hispanic students take out need-based student loans each year so these reforms are vital to their success. The bill will also provide $500 million for minority-serving institutions, including $200 million for Hispanic-Serving Institutions. The President signed this legislation into law (P.L. 110-84) on September 27, 2007.
The President has recently signed legislation giving colleges incentives to rein in tuition increases and further expanding college access for low-income students. In addition to rising tuition, students and their families face an overly-complicated and confusing federal student aid application process, as well as a student loan industry that has been mired in conflicts of interest and corrupt lending practices. That is why Congress, building on the steps taken under the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, has approved the Higher Education Opportunity Act. This legislation will reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965, strengthening many of its provisions and including new measures to address rising college costs and unethical practices in the student loan industry.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act will hold colleges accountable for rising college costs by improving the availability and accuracy of information available to parents and students. The legislation will also simplify the financial aid process; expand grant aid for the neediest students; and reform the student loan system so that it serves the best interests of students, not banks. In response to the corruption uncovered by recent investigations of the student loan industry, the legislation will ensure that colleges are recommending lenders based on the best interest of students, not the self-interest of financial aid officers; prohibit payments, gifts, and other inducements from lenders to colleges and financial aid administrators that create conflicts of interest; and require colleges to establish and follow a code of conduct with respect to student loans.
Not only will the Higher Education Opportunity Act increase funding for minority-serving institutions, including Hispanic Serving Institutions, but it will also for the first time authorize $100 million for graduate programs at these institutions. Hispanic Serving Institutions serve over a million Hispanic students, over 50 percent of Hispanics in postsecondary non-profit schools. The President signed this legislation into law on (P.L. 110-315) August 14.
Congress has also passed legislation to protect student borrowers from the turmoil in the U.S. credit markets. In recent months, problems in the mortgage market have made it difficult for some lenders who participate in the federal student loan program to secure the capital they need to finance college loans. To help ensure that access to college loans is not jeopardized by turmoil in the credit markets, Congress passed the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act. This legislation will increase the amount of federally-subsidized loans available to students and provide parents with improved access to low-cost federal loan. The legislation will also help students access low-cost federal loans by helping to stabilize the private student loan program and shoring up the existing "lender of last resort" program. In addition, by expanding eligibility for need-based financial aid, the legislation will decrease students’ reliance on loans to pay for college. The bill was signed into law on May 5, 2008 (P.L. 110-227).
Under Democratic leadership, vital legislation to expand and improve Head Start has become law. For more than 40 years, Head Start has provided America’s neediest children with cognitive, social-emotional, and academic skills, helping to prepare them for success in school. Studies show that at-risk children who have participated in Head Start programs are better prepared for school than their peers who have not had the benefit of Head Start. However, Head Start serves only about half of all eligible preschool children and fewer than five percent of eligible infants and toddlers. Approximately 34 percent of Head Start enrollees are Hispanic.
On November 14, 2007, the Senate unanimously approved the conference report to accompany H.R.1429, the Head Start for School Readiness Act, which will increase funding and expand access for the Head Start program to include additional low-income children up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill also takes important steps to expand Early Head Start (a component of Head Start that benefits infants and toddlers and their families) to serve and additional 8,000 low-income infants and toddlers over the next five years. To improve and expand the availability of quality early childhood education, the legislation would establish an Early Education and Care Council in each state to develop a coordinated and comprehensive system of early childhood education and development. The President signed this legislation into law (P.L. 110-134) on December 12.
Democrats are investing in our schools. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides grants to local educational agencies (LEAs) for supplemental education funding, especially in high-poverty areas, for local programs that provide extra academic support to help raise the achievement of eligible students or, in the case of school-wide programs, help all students in high-poverty schools to meet challenging state academic standards. The program serves about 18 million students in nearly all school districts and more than half of all public schools, including two-thirds of the nation’s elementary schools. The largest and most important of the federal education programs, Title I grants to LEAs help the students who need help the most – the millions who are being left behind. Regrettably, the federal government has fallen short of its commitment on Title I each year, and each year the gap between the authorized an appropriated levels has grown wider, for a cumulative total of $54.7 billion dollars since 2002. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008,signed into law at the end of last year, reversed this trend by providing $14.028 billion for Title I Grants to LEAs, the largest increase in five years. This amount was $118 million above the President’s proposal and $1.190 billion over the previous year’s funding level. This funding will benefit the more than 19 percent of America’s school children and teenagers who are Hispanic.
Congress passed a law to keep America competitive in the global economy. Congress passed the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act (“America COMPETES Act”) to increase the nation’s investment in basic and innovative research; strengthen educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from elementary through graduate school; ensure equitable participation in the STEM fields for underrepresented populations, such as women and minorities; and develop the infrastructure needed to enhance innovation and competitiveness in the United States.