By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, made clear Tuesday that his priority in the coming months is on getting past the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and getting students back in the classroom safely.
To do so, he pointed to the need for additional resources to be directed to state and local governments, and praised the Biden administration’s coronavirus relief package totaling nearly $2 trillion while decrying the counter proposal from 10 Republican senators totaling roughly $600 billion, which didn’t include any direct aid for higher education institutions.
“There's significant pressure coming from a handful of Republican senators who suggested that a much lower number … is a more appropriate level of funding,” Scott said Tuesday during a webinar hosted by the Education Writers Association. Support for higher education under the counter proposal, he said, would be “diminished.”
While President Joe Biden campaigned on a platform of unity and said he wants to negotiate with Republicans on a bipartisan package, Scott cautioned that it's not worth losing Democratic support in order to incorporate Republican priorities and reach a bipartisan deal.
As for student debt relief, Scott noted that Biden already extended the pause on debt payments and interest accrual through September, so Congress will not look to include it in a coronavirus relief package or reconciliation bill since there isn’t an urgent timeline to get it addressed.
And while Scott pointed to the $10,000 in federal student loan debt forgiveness for each borrower that was included in House Democrats’ Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act last May, he didn’t pinpoint one figure that he supported more than another when it comes to debt forgiveness for borrowers. Instead, he said it’s important to identify how much would be spent to fund various debt forgiveness proposals and look at what else the money could be used for.
“If we're going to spend $1.5 trillion, which is about the cost of discharging all loans, you would have to notice that the students in school today are getting no relief and will be in the same situation as those who you just discharged for,” he said. “You've done nothing to reduce the cost of college.”
Scott added that a holistic approach would be an ideal way to give significant help for those that have already taken out loans, while also reducing the cost of college “so that people won't have to take out loans to begin with.”
The root cause of student debt goes back decades, Scott said, lamenting the drop in state funding and support for higher education relative to past decades and the reduced purchasing power of the Pell Grant as two factors.
Scott said it’s “ridiculous” that the Pell Grant can only be used toward college courses that lead to a college degree and that his committee would work to expand the allowable uses of the grant.
Further, he said increasing the maximum Pell Grant, along with reforming the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program and expanding income-driven repayment plans, would help address the mounting student loan debt borrowers who leave school face.
“We should be doing everything we can to make the burden of the student loans less burdensome,” Scott said.
With a packed legislative agenda for the congressional session, Scott was non-committal on whether reuathorization of the sweeping Higher Education Act (HEA) would be tackled, saying that fixing programs that were “so messed up under the previous administration” such as PSLF and borrower defense would come first.
“It is a high priority,” Scott said of HEA reauthorization. “We passed it out of committee in the last Congress and we'd certainly like to do it again this Congress, but it's going to be a matter of resources.”
Additionally, Scott said he would like to see what is generally considered higher education expanded beyond simply degrees at four-year institutions to include “job training that leads to a rewarding career.”
He said if trillions of dollars are going to be spent on overhauling and rethinking the federal government’s role in the higher education sector, “you've got to decide exactly what you're going to use it for. It can't be [for solving] just one part of the problem.”
Publication Date: 2/3/2021