Guest Column: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

A new school year begins with many students at Brown and throughout the state starting their first semester of college classes. This milestone should remind us all of the importance of keeping college affordable for all Americans.

We have a proud tradition in Rhode Island of working to ensure that all American families can afford to send their children to college.  In 1972, Rhode Island’s great Senator Claiborne Pell took historic action by establishing Pell grants, a new system of need-based federal grants for students. Forty years later, it is more important than ever to uphold Senator Pell’s legacy.

Pell grants have helped millions of students — including more than 9 million studying today — attend one of our country’s outstanding colleges and universities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with only a high school diploma are twice as likely to be unemployed as college graduates. Thanks to Senator Pell’s enduring vision, millions of Pell grant recipients have had opportunities to build a better future for themselves and our country.

With unemployment rates still far too high, we should be doing everything we can to enable more Americans to attend college. We have taken some important steps during my time in the Senate to ease the burden of college costs. For example, we increased the maximum Pell grant from $4,050 in academic year 2006-2007 to $5,550 today.  We also increased the minimum family income that automatically qualifies a student for the maximum Pell grant, a change that better reflects today’s economic realities.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Congress shares this vision. Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a budget this year that, according to a White House study, would have reduced the average Pell grant by $820 for Rhode Island students. We defeated this misguided proposal in the Senate, but the attacks on college affordability haven’t ended there.

Both Senate and House Republicans came close to allowing student loan rates to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. American students and their families today are saddled with more than a trillion dollars in student loan debt, debt that is virtually impossible for students to escape. Many are already struggling to stay afloat in this tough economy. An interest rate spike would have had a devastating impact on these families. Again we were able to avert disaster at the eleventh hour, but our work is not done.

Now, we must extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which is set to expire this year. This $2,500 credit will help 11 million students afford the cost of a higher education next year.  And we must continue to stand strong against efforts to cut vital programs that help thousands of American families send their students to college every year.

There’s no doubt that we should address our national budget deficit, but we can do so without attacking programs for students and undermining college affordability. We should ask hedge fund billionaires to pay their fair share in taxes, and end tax subsidies for big oil companies already reaping huge profits. We should not place a larger burden on the shoulders of middle class students.

I pledge to uphold Senator Pell’s legacy, so that every student who wants his or her own shot at a first semester of college can afford to make it happen.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is a United States Senator from Rhode Island