At an event hosted by the Center for American Progress, Senator Murray delivered the keynote address, highlighting her vision for higher education
As Senate works to reauthorize Higher Education Act, Murray laid out four priorities that must be included to help students succeed in higher education
Democratic priorities are focused around helping students by addressing affordability, improving accountability, expanding access, and keeping students safe on campus
Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, spoke at the Center for American Progress’ event, “An Equity and Opportunity Agenda for Higher Education,” about her vision for higher education and how to improve our nation’s landmark higher education law, the Higher Education Act, to help students succeed.
“Students across the country are working hard and holding up their end of the bargain—so we need to write a law that strengthens federal investments in our students, supports and incentivizes states to reinvest in higher education, and ensures students have access to an education of value and graduate with high-quality certificates and degrees that help them succeed in today’s workforce and society,” said Senator Murray. “And one point that cannot be left out of this conversation is that one of the key roles the federal government should play in higher education is to help address the inequities in our society including based on race, ethnicity and income and to provide opportunities so that every student who works hard—no matter where they come from, their gender, the color of their skin, or how much money they have—is able to succeed in this country.”
In her speech, Senator Murray expanded on Democrat’s four priorities for an HEA reauthorization, which are aimed at helping students address the biggest challenges they face in higher education. The priorities are making college more affordable and reducing the burden of student debt, improving accountability of college and programs, expanding access to historically underrepresented students, and improving campus safety. Senator Murray also highlighted the need to address these issues in a comprehensive reauthorization, and to work with House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Scott and Ranking Member Foxx on a bill that can pass both chambers of Congress.
“As we move forward—it’s important that we do this right, that we bring in the voices of students, that we tackle the big, complex issues, and that we listen to each other and keep working at it even when we don’t see eye to eye. We must negotiate a comprehensive reauthorization that truly addresses the full spectrum of issues students are facing today.”
Murray also spoke of her own family’s experience with higher education receiving federal aid such as Pell Grants and Work-Study; the doors it opened for her mother, herself, and her six siblings, and called on the need to reauthorize the Higher Education Act in a way that closes the equity and opportunity gaps in our country and ensure that students today are offered the same opportunities as generations past.
“…After my mother got her degree, she was able to help get all seven of us to pursue higher education and graduate. We were able to go to college with the help of federal programs such as Pell Grants, student loans, Work Study, and the support we needed to make it through. In short—our country was there for us when we needed it. It provided us with a support network—and all seven of us graduated college and went on to become an attorney, a firefighter, a Microsoft innovator, a teacher, a stay at home mom, a sportswriter—and a U.S. Senator. And when I look to our country today—our students are not being provided the same opportunities, the same ability to lift themselves up. Today’s higher education system often reinforces the inequity in our society and federal investments can either close or widen those divides. The choice is up to us.”
Full text of Senator Murray’s speech, as prepared for delivery:
Thank you Neera for that kind introduction, and thank you to the Center for American Progress for hosting an important conversation about increasing equity and opportunity in higher education.
The opportunity to reauthorize our nation’s landmark higher education law doesn’t come around very often so in order to make a lasting impact on the next generation of students—it’s important we get this right.
It’s been over ten years since the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and today’s students are coming from very different circumstances—and are entering a completely different economy and society than the students of 2008.
Students like Joshua, who I recently met with in Vancouver—back in what some of us call the better Washington.
Joshua earned college credit through a dual enrollment program before he graduated high school.
But knowing he still couldn’t afford a four-year degree right away, Joshua took a full year off to work and save for college
He’s now back in school working towards his bachelor’s, but he can only attend part-time because, like many students, he can’t afford the high costs of college without working significant hours.
Or Angela—who recently shared her experience of being a single mom while pursuing higher education.
It took Angela 5 years to earn her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering—she started at a community college and later transferred to a four-year university while also working full time.
She used a combination of scholarships, grants, and work study to pay for her degree and financed the rest with student debt—all while trying to balance her day to day family financial responsibilities.
And now Angela is working to earn her doctorate in aerospace engineering, but her research stipend, loans, child care subsidy for her daughter, and what’s left of her savings, aren’t always enough to make ends meet.
At times she’s been forced to add crushing hours of work on the side and even to sell family heirlooms just to get by.
Angela hopes to one day build advanced rocket systems for interplanetary space travel and human exploration missions—and she shouldn’t be held back from that dream because she’s struggling right now to support herself and her daughter.
Or Lakota—a single mother determined to break the cycle of poverty on an Indian reservation, who picked up her two daughters to move to a college campus far away on the other side of the country.
After two years, she realized that her education was lacking a sense of family and cultural understanding.
So she moved again and transferred to a tribal college several states away to pursue a degree that values her heritage and incorporates her Native culture into her program of study.
I’ve heard from so many students like Joshua, Angela, and Lakota on the complex issues that impede students from succeeding in higher education.
And it’s clear we can’t waste this opportunity to reauthorize the Higher Education Act by addressing only some of the easier issues, and picking up just a few bipartisan bills—while leaving the hard stuff on the table.
Students across the country are working hard and holding up their end of the bargain—so we need to write a law that strengthens federal investments in our students, supports and incentivizes states to reinvest in higher education, and ensures students have access to an education of value and graduate with high-quality certificates and degrees that help them succeed in today’s workforce and society.
And one point that cannot be left out of this conversation is that one of the key roles the federal government should play in higher education is to help address the inequities in our society including based on race, ethnicity and income and to provide opportunities so that every student who works hard—no matter where they come from, their gender, the color of their skin, or how much money they have—is able to succeed in this country.
This was the original intent of the Higher Education Act when it was signed more than 50 years ago and as Chairman Alexander and I—along with our other House and Senate colleagues—work on reauthorizing the law, we must address the widening opportunity and equity gaps in higher education in this reauthorization.
So, with that in mind, I want to lay out four key priorities today that I believe an HEA reauthorization must address in order to ensure equity and give students the opportunity to succeed.
They are improving college affordability, holding schools accountable for student success, expanding access to higher education, and increasing campus safety and protecting students’ civil rights.
These aren’t just my priorities—these are student priorities, and here is my vision for each.
Number one—making college more affordable.
It’s important to note that when we talk about college affordability, there are two separate, but equally important, issues at hand.
We need to make college more affordable for current and future students…
And we also need to help the 44 million student loan borrowers manage the 1.5 trillion dollars in debt that they owe.
First—making college affordable for students…
Today’s students are being asked to pay more for college than previous generations—with less financial support.
This is something near and dear to my heart as someone who was only able to go to college thanks to federal support—including the predecessor to what is now is known as Pell Grants.
But the maximum Pell Grant today covers just over one-fourth of the cost of attending public four-year college—down from half of the cost in the 1980s.
This means many low-income students are forced to heavily rely on loans to fill in the gaps.
Nearly 60% of Pell Grant recipients take out loans—whereas only about a quarter of those students who do not need or receive Pell borrow loans.
And Pell alone doesn’t tell the full story. Students of color are more likely to borrow, borrow in greater amounts, and are less likely to be able to pay down their debt compared to their white peers.
The consequences are particularly severe for black students.
Nearly 80 percent of black students borrow—and they end up having a 50/50 chance of defaulting on their student loan within 12 years of entering college.
This wasn’t always the case.
Higher education used to swing open the doors of opportunity and allow people to join the middle class…
And we cannot turn into a society where the rich go to college—while working families are funneled into low quality programs or are shut out of college all together.
Everyone who wants to go to college—whether it’s a two or four year degree—should have the choice to do so, and shouldn’t be saddled with debt as a result.
So in order to address this, our HEA reauthorization must include a state-federal partnership to promote new investments in our students and families and to pave affordable pathways to higher education.
And we should increase investments in need-based aid like Pell Grants, The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant—or the SEOG, and Work Study.
We also need to address the total costs of college, not just tuition—but food, text books, housing, transportation, child care and more.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the cost of living is the cost of college—and that many students are struggling just to meet their most essential and basic needs.
And yes—we can and should simplify FAFSA…
But any student will tell you while it is helpful—it does not do enough to address the challenges they face with affording college.
And secondly—we need to address the student debt crisis in our country.
Student debt has exploded to 1.5 trillion dollars—more than credit card debt and auto loans.
Of that $1.5 trillion, nearly $170 billion is in serious delinquency.
More than a million borrowers a year are defaulting.
There is real and severe financial pain out there.
I’ve heard from students like Brianne, who recently graduated from college and landed her dream job.
Even though she makes more than most her age, she feels like she’s “getting nowhere” on her student loan debt because of the high interest rates.
So we should of course simplify student loan repayment options.
But for the millions of borrowers struggling to get by, we need to provide them with real relief on student debt—not just prioritize their student loan payments over all their other expenses.
We need to fix the path to loan forgiveness already laid out in federal law, for students who have been cheated by their schools, for our public servants, and for those who can no longer work because of a disability.
And our system of federal student loan servicing has to work for borrowers not against them—which we know is far from the case today.
We see servicing breakdowns at every servicer, for all types of borrowers, and at every stage of repayment—and it must be fixed now.
College affordability is an issue that gets a lot of attention—rightfully so—and many of my colleagues have strong ambitions for how we make college more affordable.
From providing students the ability to graduate without debt, to covering tuition and fees at public colleges—these proposals are worthy of consideration.
Now we may not be able to achieve these bold goals in a bipartisan reauthorization this year without Republicans coming to the table supporting these ideas— but we still have a significant opportunity to take a big step in the right direction, and to make a significant down payment toward providing real opportunities for future students.
As we continue to have conversations about big picture proposals on higher education affordability, we must also evaluate these proposals with an equity lens and an eye toward closing our growing racial wealth gaps in this country.
I’m confident with rigorous debate and diverse voices—we can find solutions that truly help the students who need it the most.
Priority number two—accountability.
We, as a country, have made clear that higher education is an investment we can and should make.
Taxpayers make a substantial investment in our country’s students and colleges.
The question then must be, in part, what we get for it.
We spend 130 billion dollars of taxpayer dollars in loans and grants every year—not to mention the money students are paying themselves.
And this isn’t just an investment in our students, it’s an investment in our economy—we’re educating and preparing today and tomorrow’s workers, inventers, thinkers, entrepreneurs, and leaders.
So it is critical that schools are holding up their end of the bargain.
That means schools must be enrolling all types of students—including from historically underrepresented backgrounds and support students while they are in school so they are able to complete their degree.
And of course, schools must ensure students can get a job with their degree or certificate where they can both earn enough to manage their student debt and thrive in our diverse and changing society and economy.
We can create a system that lifts up expectations and supports less-resourced schools—while putting an end to predatory practices that leave students worse off and in financial ruin.
One of the root causes of unaffordable debt is low-quality programs or colleges that churn out students—or require them to take out too much debt without providing them with the support and credentials of value to get good-paying jobs.
We need only look at the stories of Corinthian Colleges, ITT Tech, Education Corporation of America, and so many other large, predatory for-profit colleges to know that the HEA needs to respond to what is happening to students today.
These colleges often target students of color, low-income students, and our veterans and military servicemembers…
…and the truly predatory actors put profit before students.
Even though they have ample resources—they willingly spend little of it on educating students or ensuring the value of their certificate or degree.
We cannot turn a blind eye on these institutions and we must reject the path Secretary DeVos has taken to allow predatory actors to run rampant and to put their supporters—and in many cases their former executives—in charge of overseeing the industry.
We must all agree that protecting the enormous investment students and taxpayers put into higher education is paramount.
Priority three—increasing access to higher education.
Higher education can drastically change a person’s life, and for many—it has allowed them to climb the rung into the middle class and beyond.
But that’s only possible when the door is opened and there’s someone on the other side offering a helping hand.
So we need to expand access to students who have been traditionally left out of higher education by enhancing federal investments and support systems that help those historically underrepresented students, including: students of color, first-generation college students, student parents, homeless and foster youth, women, students with disabilities, LGBTQ students, working students, veterans, servicemembers and their families.
And it’s not just about expanding admissions—colleges need to do more to support students while they are in school with: access to peer mentoring, providing counseling to help them navigate financial aid, get academic support, and career counseling, connecting students with food and housing benefits, ensuring they have a safe place to sleep, and reducing the cost of textbooks and supplies.
And for students with disabilities—colleges need to invest in the additional support and the services they need to get an education.
And finally—there are a lot of schools focusing specifically on serving historically underrepresented students—including community colleges, HBCUs, tribal colleges, Hispanic-Serving colleges, and other minority-serving institutions.
Too often these schools are asked to do more with less…
And have not received equal resources in the past due to a legacy of discrimination or a lack of prioritization by states or the federal government.
So our HEA reauthorization must do more to support these schools with the resources they need to educate students.
[Campus Safety & Civil Rights]
And my fourth and final priority—improving campus safety and protecting student’s civil rights.
Schools are responsible for ensuring all students are safe, no matter their race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability status.
That doesn’t mean difficult conversations can’t be had—the exchange of ideas is a critical part of higher education—but no student should have to face harassment, discrimination, or assault.
One of my top priorities in this HEA reauthorization is to address the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses across the country.
One in five women and nearly one in 18 men experience sexual violence in college…
And I’ve heard from survivors who felt their school didn’t do enough—or act quickly…
Who were re-traumatized every time they saw their attacker…
Who were forced to go to class with their attacker…
And even those who ultimately dropped out of school as a result.
Unfortunately, rather than listen to survivors and meaningfully address this crisis—Secretary DeVos has taken steps to once again sweep campus sexual assault under the rug.
Her proposed rule would weaken protections for students and allow schools to shirk their responsibility to protect students.
Now I’ve voiced my opposition to this rule, and notably—over 100,000 students submitted comments to Secretary DeVos on this harmful proposal as well.
So I hope Secretary DeVos listens to them, scraps her disastrous proposal, and works with students, survivors, and advocates to come up with a solution that truly helps students.
I’m going to keep pushing her to do that while we work towards this reauthorization.
And in addition to campus sexual assault—we must also address discrimination on campuses.
Students are facing so many challenges in higher education today…
…from affording college…
…managing or paying off their student debt…
…earning a degree that will help them move ahead …
…and even accessing college altogether…
They shouldn’t have an even harder time because of who they are, the color of their skin, or how they learn.
And finally—we need to take a serious look at bullying, harassment, and hazing.
Over the past few years, we’ve heard stories of students taking drastic measures because their being bullied—including, tragically suicide—and stories of tragic deaths as a result of hazing.
A single death in unacceptable—and college and universities must start taking their responsibilities to keep students safe seriously.
[The process of reauthorizing HEA]
So—those are my four priorities and I’m pleased that Chairman Alexander and I have begun working on a good-faith negotiation to really tackle these issues.
Chairman Alexander and I have a long history of tackling tough issues and getting to a result that works for our members and the Senate -- I hope this is the next in those many efforts.
As we move forward—it’s important that we do this right…
…that we bring in the voices of students…
…that we tackle the big, complex issues…
…and that we listen to each other and keep working at it even when we don’t see eye to eye…
We must negotiate a comprehensive reauthorization that truly addresses the full spectrum of issues students are facing today.
I know the House is getting to work as well under the strong leadership of Chairman Scott working with Ranking Member Foxx.
I plan to work closely with them through this process, and I will be making it very clear to Chairman Alexander that if we want an actual result here—a bill signed into law—we need to work in the Senate in a way that allows for ultimate passage in the House.
To work any differently would simply be an exercise that would lead nowhere.
I’m ready to get to work and I hope everyone in this room will share their ideas to address the biggest challenges in higher education today.
Now before I finish—I’ve talked today a bit about how education can open doors—and I want to share my family’s higher education story with you.
Because I think it is a model of how our country is supposed to work.
After my father was diagnosed with M.S. and could no longer work, we relied on food stamps to get by.
My mother enrolled in a program to get her accounting degree in two years.
And me and my six siblings—we all worked and helped pitch in to make ends meet.
And after my mother got her degree, she was able to help get all seven of us to pursue higher education and graduate.
We were able to go to college with the help of federal programs such as Pell Grants, student loans, Work Study, and the support we needed to make it through.
In short—our country was there for us when we needed it.
It provided us with a support network—and all seven of us graduated college and went on to become an attorney, a firefighter, a Microsoft innovator, a teacher, a stay at home mom, a sportswriter—and a U.S. Senator.
And when I look to our country today—our students are not being provided the same opportunities, the same ability to lift themselves up.
Today’s higher education system often reinforces the inequity in our society…
…and federal investments can either close or widen those divides.
The choice is up to us.
Thank you all for coming today and for engaging in the conversation about how we can move higher education forward by ensuring equity and providing today’s students the same opportunities that were afforded to us.