WASHINGTON – Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., joined 32 other Democrat senators Thursday in introducing the Debt-Free College Act, legislation that will reverse the growing student debt crisis in the United States. The bill creates a path for students to be able to attend public colleges without taking on debt.
“I was the first in my family to go to college, so I know firsthand how important the opportunity to pursue higher education is to the American Dream. But right now, crushing debt is putting that dream in jeopardy for far too many American students,” Merkley said in a news release.
“In the wealthiest nation on Earth, our students shouldn’t have to mortgage their future just to get a college degree. It’s time to put the ‘public’ back in public education and ensure that every student who wants to can pursue higher education debt-free.”
If signed into law, the Debt-Free College Act would establish a state-federal partnership that provides a dollar-for-dollar federal match to state higher education appropriations in exchange for a commitment to help students pay for the full cost of attendance without having to take on debt.
Beyond tuition and fees, the total cost of attendance—room and board, books and supplies, and other expenses—has forced 44 million Americans to take on debt to cover their financial need. College debt has increased 170 percent since 2006 and now exceeds $1.4 trillion, which is second only to mortgage debt and surpasses even credit card debt.
In Oregon, 63 percent of students in the class of 2015 graduated with debt, averaging $27,697 per borrower. A 2014 analysis by The Oregonian found that over a ten-year period, Oregon students and their families borrowed more than $12 billion – more than double the amount from a decade earlier.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student loan debt is responsible for 35 percent of the decline in homeownership since 2007. The percentage of younger people who reported owning a business was cut in half between 2010 and 2013. Pew Research Center found that about 50 percent of student borrowers say their loans increase their risk of defaulting on other bills.
“This proposal is truly a comprehensive approach that ensures all students – especially students of color – in our country can get a degree without putting their financial futures at risk,” said Tamara Draut, Vice President of Policy and Research at Demos. “If signed into law, millions of students would have access to a college education who otherwise were left on the sideline because it was out of their price range.”
“At a time when America’s higher education policy is woefully in need of an update, this is a bill that directly responds to the problems facing today’s students,” said Reid Setzer, Government Affairs Director for Young Invincibles. “The Debt-Free College Act takes on the financial challenges facing students by creating the debt-free pathways they need to access and complete postsecondary education. Tuition alone is only a partial share of the cost of college.
“In addition to free tuition and fees, this bill would give students at 2-year and 4-year public colleges financial aid to cover books, transportation, housing, and other costs that can make it impossible to obtain a college education, while prioritizing students with the highest need.
“It does this by creating a partnership between the federal government and state governments designed to provide tuition-free and debt-free college to as many students as possible, directly targeting the underlying cause of ballooning debt: state disinvestment. This is the kind of modern policy that responds to the lives of students holistically and makes college attainable for millions.”
The bill is co-sponsored by U.S. senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and by U.S. Representatives Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Rick Nolan (D-Minn.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.).
The bill is also endorsed by the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Demos, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Young Invincibles, Credo Action, Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), UnidosUS, and California State Treasurer John Chiang.