Higher education: The Senate's golden opportunity

State governments are exacerbating the situation by cutting funding for higher education while Boards of Trustees and Regents are making up the difference by raising tuition, essentially taxing students to close state budget deficits. One of the most notorious examples is in Pennsylvania where 72% of students are in debt, the average load of which is over $27,000. Yet Governor Tom Corbett (R) has proposed a budget that slashes education funding in half, devastating financial aid programs for students who are already hurting more than most. 
 
Draconian policies like these have resulted in students taking action. Over the past two weeks, students at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania organized massive rallies on campus and at the state capitol to oppose the Governor’s budget. On Monday, the Oregon Student Association led hundreds of students to their capitol to lobby state officials for more education funding. Students at Rutgers University are occupying parts of Old Queens, the historic building that houses university president Richard McCormick’s office, demanding policy reforms that increase college access and affordability and give more rights to campus workers. Students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison have been organizing protests for over month in opposition to Governor Walker’s plan to begin privatizing the University of Wisconsin system. 
 
From the University of Washington to Central Florida University, UCLA to U-Mass. Amherst, the list of student activism goes on. 
 
So, here we have a major public policy problem: college is getting too expensive and inaccessible for millions of young people. State governments are making things worse by balancing their budgets on the backs of students through tuition and fee hikes, prompting major political action nationwide.  To make the situation even easier for federal legislators, poll after poll shows a vast majority of Americans - Democrats, Republicans, and Independents - support government investment in higher education. Here’s just a sample from this year:
 
·      On April 1, CNN found that 63 percent of the public supports increased federal funding for higher education, with only 24 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of Independents believing that education funding should be decreased.
·      In March, a Bloomberg National News poll found that Americans by a nearly four-to-one margin oppose proposals to significantly cut subsidies for college loans.
·      In February, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that by a 55-39 percent margin, Americans believe cuts to college student loans are unacceptable.
·      In February, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press issued a report in which they asked those surveyed, “If you were making up the budget for the federal government this year, would you increase, decrease, or keep spending the same for [insert program]?”  Education received the highest score of all programs, with 62 percent supporting increased funding.
 
There are over a dozen polls, conducted just this year, that offer the same results. Despite today’s ubiquitous messaging around deficit reduction and budget cuts, the American people do not want Congress to cut funding for higher education.
 
The U.S. House of Representatives did not get this message when it passed House Concurrent Resolution 34, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget bill. Despite an outpouring of young people trying to go to school, Rep. Ryan’s budget devastates the Pell Grant program, which provides funding for low-income students to attend college. Already, the Pell Grant’s purchasing power has plummeted from covering 72% of the cost of college in 1976 to just around 30% today. Access and retention programs such as TRIO, support for minority-serving institutions, loan subsidies, summer school financial aid, and more are all diminished in the House budget.
 
Where the House failed, the Senate now has a golden opportunity to express the crystal clear view of the American people, and especially that of America’s youth. Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee John Cornyn (R-Texas) seems to be getting the message, saying recently that, “I’ve always supported Pell Grants because education funding is very important.”  

Recognizing the longer-term effects of debt, he went on to say that “a lot of students, they can borrow money, but many students graduate from college with huge loans, and sometimes it’s a real problem to pay it back.” As a top Republican, Sen. Cornyn’s words reflect the reality that investing in college access and success is a bipartisan issue that should not be sacrificed in myopic budget cuts.
 
The evidence is in and the message is clear: Americans are hurting because of high college costs and want the government to do something about it. We are in a difficult time fiscally, but it is the priorities we invest in now that will determine if we sink or swing as a nation in the long run.  Rare is the political issue that is politically popular, bipartisan, and the right thing to do. The Senate must pass a budget that takes advantage of this golden opportunity.

Lindsay McCluskey is the president of the U.S. Student Association.