Senator Murray Urges Action to Make Higher Education More Affordable and Accessible, As Colleges Work to Reopen this Fall
Senator Murray: “We have a lot of work to do to make sure every single student has the opportunity to achieve a higher education in a safe environment, free from debt.”
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, during a Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing, Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) highlighted how the American Rescue Plan has provided key relief to higher education students and helped institutions re-open their doors safely. In her opening remarks, Senator Murray laid out the significant work that needs to be done to address systemic inequities in our higher education system and make college more affordable, accessible and safer for all students—including by making community college free, doubling Pell grants and supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-serving, tribal, and other minority-serving institutions.
“The federal relief funds provided to colleges was a powerful and important step forward,” said Senator Patty Murray. “But if we truly want to help students succeed, then we have to do more than simply return to normal. Because even before this pandemic, ‘normal’s’ price tag was far too expensive and out of reach for too many students. Normal left too many students hungry, homeless, and hanging on by a thread. It left them with historic amounts of student loan debt, and with empty promises from predatory for-profit colleges. Normal was systemic racial and economic inequities in higher education, and an epidemic of sexual assault, harassment, and bullying on campuses. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we have to do better than normal.”
At the hearing, Senator Murray stressed that as schools work to safely reopen, colleges must continue to address students’ academic, health— including mental health—and basic needs.
But in order to truly ensure that every student can access and succeed in higher education, she urged her colleagues to join her in efforts to college more affordable and accessible—including by making community college free as she has proposed in the America’s College Promise Act and by doubling Pell grants as she has proposed in the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act. She also stressed the importance of ensuring that every student is safe on campus, and praised the Biden Administration’s recent steps to reverse the Trump Administration’s harmful Title IX rule.
“We have a lot of work to do to make sure every single student has the opportunity to achieve a higher education in a safe environment, free from debt,” continued Senator Murray. “And as we continue that work, I look forward to hearing from our witnesses about what the pandemic can teach us about how we get this done—and working with my colleagues to make it happen.”
Senator Murray’s opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:
“This pandemic upended higher education in so many different ways.
“Colleges and universities had to close campuses and services, rapidly transition to online education and implement critical public health measures, all while facing budget shortfalls.
“And overall spring enrollment fell to 16.9 million from 17.5 million, marking a one-year decline of over 600 thousand students.
“Meanwhile, this pandemic has disrupted students’ classrooms and housing security, challenged their mental health, upended the economy, and created more uncertainty for students already struggling to pay for tuition, rent, food, and other basic needs.
“The pandemic has also shown us how much college students are hanging on by a thread.
“The fact that students were food and housing insecure before the pandemic truly concerns me. And now these needs have only deepened.
“But, the pandemic has also shown us the power of supporting communities.
“As colleges look to safely reopen this fall, there are many lessons we can draw on from institutions that are thoughtfully and safely reopening.
“The work to safely reopen must continue. Each college will need to take into account the needs of students, faculty, staff, and vulnerable populations as they bring more people back to campus.
“And colleges must continue to address students’ academic, health— including mental health—and basic needs.
“The federal relief funds provided to colleges was a powerful and important step forward.
“The University of Washington, back in my home state, told my office the amount of emergency aid requests they are receiving is twenty times higher than what it was before the pandemic.
“A study from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found first-year students reported significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety in the wake of the pandemic.
“What’s more: two in five students report experiencing food insecurity, almost half report experiencing housing insecurity, and one in six report experiencing homelessness.
“And we know this pain has not been felt equally.
“It has been hardest on historically under-resourced institutions like HBCUs, other minority serving institutions, and community colleges.
“It has been hardest on students of color, families with low incomes, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, rural students, veterans, and first generation college students—students who have always experienced inequities in our education system.
“That’s why it was so important Congress take action—and while we have more work to do to see everyone through this crisis—we have been able to make student loan forgiveness tax free—full stop, and provide more than $76 billion in Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds—including nearly $40 billion we passed as part of the American Rescue Plan.
“And I’ve heard from so many people back in my state what a lifeline those funds have been for schools and students.
“Colleges have been able to use these funds to support vaccination efforts, secure personal protective equipment, purchase cleaning supplies, update technology for remote learning, cover lost revenue, and perhaps most importantly, they have been able to provide students desperately needed direct financial support as they grapple with the fallout of this pandemic.
“Because of the pandemic, a student at Western Washington University is living in a tent with her children—now she’s receiving emergency aid because of the American Rescue Plan.
“An international student at Seattle Colleges couldn’t go home due to the pandemic, and can’t pay for their rent or food—these funds are helping them make ends meet.
“A student at Edmonds College was considering skipping the spring quarter so she could afford to cremate and bury her father—emergency financial aid meant she could keep her classes.
“And these are just a few of the many stories of the impact this funding is having on students.
“Whatcom Community College has provided emergency funds to nearly 1,400 students, Clark College—2,5000 students, Washington State University—nearly 10 thousand, and University of Washington has awarded aid to over 21,000 thousand students.
“There are countless stories from Heritage University, Big Bend Community College, Wenatchee Valley College, and others schools across my state—and millions more from across the country, about what this aid has meant to students.
“How it helped them afford tuition, books, food, housing, child care, technology for remote learning, whatever it was they needed to continue their education.
“And I’m pleased to have a student with us today, Anthony Harris, from Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio, to share his own story.
“Anthony, thank you so much for being here.
“I hope we all take an important lesson away from this about the difference it makes when someone gets a helping hand during tough times.
“Students like Anthony, and students like those whose stories I just shared, are in many ways the future, and the schools they attend are foundational to local economies nationwide.
“Their success is critical to the success of our country and our communities.
“But if we truly want to help students succeed—then we have to do more than simply return to normal.
“Because even before this pandemic, “normal’s” price tag, was far too expensive and out of reach for too many students.
“Normal left too many students hungry, homeless, and hanging on by a thread.
“It left them with historic amounts of student loan debt, and with empty promises from predatory for-profit colleges.
“Normal was systemic racial and economic inequities in higher education, and an epidemic of sexual assault, harassment, and bullying on campuses.
“If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we have to do better than normal.
“That’s why I worked with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to make sure legislation we passed last year restored Pell Grant eligibility for: incarcerated individuals, students who have been defrauded, and students with drug-related offenses.
“It’s why we worked to provide relief for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and to better support working students, working families, students who are paid low-incomes, and student parents.
“And it’s why I am still pushing to do more.
“I am working to reverse the Trump Administration’s harmful Title IX rule which made it much harder for a student to report an incident of sexual assault or harassment, and much easier for a school to sweep it under the rug.
“Yesterday, I introduced legislation to double the maximum amount for Pell Grants and further expand Pell eligibility.
“And I’ve joined my Democratic colleagues to introduce legislation to make community college tuition free.
“Back in my state, the Seattle Promise program is showing how supporting students with tuition free community college can strengthen communities.
“Which is why the city is using COVID relief funds to expand this program and help it cover even more student needs—because they understand this is how we help Seattle return from this pandemic stronger and fairer.
“We have a lot of work to do to make sure every single student has the opportunity to achieve a higher education in a safe environment, free from debt.
“And as we continue that work I look forward to hearing from our witnesses about what the pandemic can teach us about how we get this done—and working with my colleagues to make it happen.
“And now, I’ll turn it over to Ranking Member Burr for his opening remarks.”
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