Dear Chairwoman DeLauro, Chairman Blunt, Ranking Member Cole, and Ranking Member Murray:
As you work on providing economic relief and protecting public health in response to the COVID-19 crisis and move forward with the FY21 appropriations process, we, the undersigned student advocacy organizations, write to urge you to invest in America’s institutions of higher education, so that they can ensure student success and support during this crisis.
As you consider future stimulus and budget bills, we suggest more generous policy guidelines and funding in these key areas:
Nearly 7 million students in America currently receive Pell Grants – and that number will only increase as the economic fallout from the pandemic increases student need. Pell Grants are the cornerstone of America’s investment in higher education, but their purchasing power has fallen in recent years as tuition has gone up. In the wake of the last recession, the Pell Grant reserve fund was spent down to such a degree that eligibility needed to be restricted mid school year. We urge appropriators to not rescind funds from the Pell reserve to fill holes in other parts of the Labor-HHS budget, and take steps to ensure its long-term financial health in anticipation of increased need this fall semester. Furthermore, to make sure that the Pell Grant lives up to its promise of increasing college accessibility, we urge Congress to double the maximum award, with a goal of returning Pell’s purchasing power to its historic peak of approximately three-quarters of the cost of attending a four-year public institution. Beyond that, future increases should be pegged at least to the rate of inflation and other measures, such as extending the lifetime of Pell eligibility, should be considered in future authorizing legislation.
Basic Needs Support to Students and Institutions
More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past two months, and countless others have seen their wages or hours reduced. Today’s college students have lives and jobs beyond campus, predominantly in the service and hospitality industries that have been most acutely hurt during this pandemic. Furthermore, students’ families may experience unemployment and hunger, or their own children may need at-home care with the closure of K-12 schools in many states. We greatly appreciate the funding in the CARES Act to give emergency aid to students, but more must be done. Provisions in the HEROES Act to ensure dependent college students and their families receive a stimulus check ought to be included in the next stimulus bill. In future legislation, Congress should take steps to ensure colleges receive new funding to expand food insecurity programs for the fall semester, as laid out in the Campus Hunger Reduction Act. Furthermore, Congress should increase funding to institutions to support childcare programs, work-study students if their positions are unable to transition to remote work, programs serving first-generation and other vulnerable campus populations, and at-home internet and computer access.
Affordable Course Materials
Nearly $3 billion dollars of student aid money is spent each year to pay for textbooks, one of the biggest out-of-pocket costs for students beyond tuition and room and board. The high cost of textbooks forces students to drop classes, skip meals, and work long hours. In recent years, the use of access codes (where students pay to submit homework on a publisher’s platform) has not lowered costs for students – and comes with an automatic cut in the student’s grade if they are forced to skip buying them. Effectively, students are having to pay to participate in a class they have already paid tuition for. As we look to an online fall semester, the potential increased use of access codes will make it harder for students with increased need to afford college. We applaud Congress’ support of the Open Textbook Pilot, a grant program which supports the adoption and creation of open educational resources, which students can access for free online. The program’s projected savings of $170 million dollars over the next few years are offering meaningful, sustainable relief to students because of their investments in the infrastructure to deliver this free content, and programs focused on high-enrollment courses in STEM and in health sciences. In the FY21 budget, we urge appropriators to increase funding for the PIlot to $70 million, to help institutions develop more supplemental content to replace access codes and reach students learning from home.
Funding to the States
A major contributor to the rising cost of college tuition over the past decade has been sharp reductions in state higher education appropriations. When public institutions cannot count on state budgets to cover more of their operating expenses, those costs get passed along to students. Given that many states have not had their higher education appropriations and per-student spending return to pre- Great Recession levels, Congress ought to take steps to prevent similar cuts in response to COVID-19. We cannot allow this dynamic to deepen the student debt crisis and put further strain on our economy. In the next stimulus bill, we urge Congress to give $50 billion in aid to the states earmarked for institutions of higher education, with automatic stabilizer provisions to kick in if the economic crisis deepens and a “maintenance of effort” component to reduce cuts to core operational funding and student aid. Aid should also be targeted with a formula that provides great support to lower-resourced institutions such as community colleges and regional public colleges whose enrollment is likely to increase relative to other kinds of institutions.
Temporary Relief for Student Loan Borrowers
Americans were already struggling to pay off the nearly $1.7 trillion they owe in student loan debt. With nearly a quarter of Americans now unemployed, monthly student loan payments could become a backbreaking burden on top of food costs, medical care, rent, and other overdue bills. We applaud Congress for taking steps in the CARES Act to apply temporary forbearance for those with federal student loans, but more must be done. In the next stimulus package, we urge you to make those benefits universal by extending them to those with private and institutional loans, and to extend the payment freeze until experts agree that the public health emergency and economic downturn are behind us.
College students across America may be wrapping up their spring classes, but the challenges students face will continue through the summer and into the fall. By making investments now to ensure affordability and access for students, Congress can speed up our economic recovery and make meaningful progress to addressing the student debt crisis.
Thank you for attention to this critical matter.
Arizona Student Association
Associated Students of the University of Missouri
Association of Big Ten Students
Coalition of New York State Student Governments
Louisiana Council of Student Body Presidents
Massachusetts Student Advisory Council
Oregon Student Association
State University of New York Student Association
Students United (Minnesota)
University of California Student Association
University of North Carolina Association of Student Governments
University Student Senate of the City University of New York
University System of Maryland Student Council
Washington Student Association