Congressman Elijah Cummings

The graduation ceremonies taking place across America this month should heighten our awareness of the continuing struggle to make college more affordable for every American.

A high-quality, affordable college education transformed my life, as it has for tens of millions of other Americans.  As President Obama has observed, finding the way to pay for college remains the single most important investment that students can make in their own futures and the future of our nation.

Progress under Democratic Leadership

During the depths of the Recession, many states responded to budget shortfalls by cutting funding for higher education.  As a result, public four-year colleges were forced to increase the cost of tuition, students and their families suffered, and too many were forced to leave school.

In response, while we Democrats were still in the majority in Congress, we worked with President Obama to help students and their families meet those increased costs.

We increased Pell Grant funding for more than 8 million Americans by 70 percent and increased the maximum Pell Grant award by $1,000.  As a result, Pell Grants will help more than 2 million additional students this year.

We also created the American Opportunity Tax Credit that provides up to $2,500 per student each year to help cover the cost of tuition, fees and books, providing 10 million students and their families an average benefit of about $1,800.

We reformed the student loan programs by directing that all federal student loans must be issued through the Direct Student Loan program—instead of subsidizing banks through the more costly Federal Family Educational Loan program.  We saved taxpayers nearly $68 billion by 2020 and reinvested these savings in students.

We expanded income-based repayment options for student borrowers with unmanageable debt; increased investments in America’s community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and other Minority Serving Institutions; and simplified the federal student aid application to make it easier to apply for financial aid.

Taken together, these reforms represented real progress toward making college more affordable.

Republican Reaction

Following their election victory in 2014, however, Republicans in Congress reacted, proposing a budget that would slash public investments that benefit students and their families.

The budget blueprint recently agreed to by House and Senate Republicans would eliminate $90 billion in dedicated Pell Grant funding and let the American Opportunity Tax Credit expire after 2017 – resulting in a tax increase for millions of students and families.

Nine million students participated in the $33.7 billion Pell Grant program in the 2013-2014 school year.  If the mandatory funding is cut, there is no guarantee that Congress would use its discretion to pick up the costs.

Lower income students would be squeezed by the end of subsidized Stafford loans, on which the government pays the interest while the 28 million borrowers remain in school.

The Republicans also would reverse President Obama’s expansion of a student loan program that caps a borrower’s monthly bill at 10 percent of income and forgives the debt after 20 years of payment — and end Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which forgives any remaining student loan debt for borrowers who work in the public sector for 10 years.

These Republican budget-slashing proposals would harm Americans of every background — but African-American students and their families, who are more likely to take on education debt, would be harmed the worst.

Standing Up for an Educated America 

The value of an educated population should be as apparent to Republicans as it is to me.  Their own constituents would be harmed if their proposed cuts were to become law.

In a broader sense, moreover, our national security and economy are at stake.  As President Obama has observed, “Today, more than ever, Americans need more knowledge and skills to meet the demands of a growing global economy without having to take on decades of debt before they even embark on their career.”

I am confident that Senator Mikulski, Senator Cardin and Maryland’s House Delegation will stand with the President in our effort to halt — or at least moderate — these harsh, unwise and short-sighted Republican budget cuts.

Yet, I also realize that only a broad, national outcry will preserve the higher education reforms that we have achieved — and keep our nation moving forward toward a more prosperous and sustainable future.

We need to stand together as a nation against these proposed budget cuts and work, in a bipartisan fashion, to achieve a better educated and more productive future for every American.

As a first step, we should allow the millions of Americans, who currently are being crushed by existing student loan debt, to refinance their loans at today’s lower interest rates.  Proposed legislation that I am proud to co-sponsor — the Bank on Student Emergency Loan Refinancing Act (S. 793 / H.R. 1434) — would provide that relief.

We must do better, standing up for a better educated America.  The stability of our middle class and our future prosperity as a nation depend upon the education of our people.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.