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EDUCATION: Senator Murray Pushes Bill to Make College More Affordable

Jul 18 2007

In Floor Speech, Murray Urges Passage of Higher Education Access Act

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) spoke out on the Senate floor in support of the Higher Education Access Act.  The bill, which Murray helped write, will raise Pell Grants, keep loan payments reasonable for graduates, assist military service members, and help homeless and foster students attend college.

Senator Murray's remarks follow:

Mr. President, in these days of global competition, a college education is the gateway to a successful career, a growing economy, and stronger future for our country.  Today in the Senate, we have an opportunity to help more students attend college and afford a college education, and I'm pleased to speak in support of the Higher Education Access Act.  

When I was growing up, my family didn't have a lot.  The only way I was able to attend college was through Pell Grants and student loans.  In fact, because of Pell Grants and student loans, all seven kids in my family were able to get a college education.  Today those seven kids are a school teacher, a lawyer, firefighter, a homemaker, a computer programmer, a sports writer, and a United States Senator.  In my book, that was a great investment.  I want to make sure that students today have the same opportunities that I had growing up.  It's important for them as individuals, and it's critical for our country's future.

In recent years, the deck has become increasingly stacked against students.  College has become more expensive while some large lenders have taken advantage of students.  Those students who are able to attend college often graduate saddled with debt and unable to buy a car or buy a house.  Other graduates can't pursue public service jobs – in areas where we need help – because they can't afford to pay their loans on a public service salary.  This bill will begin to turn tide in favor of students.  It puts students first, makes college more affordable, helps recent graduates, and encourages public service.  

I also worked to ensure that military service members get more time to defer their student loan payments while they're on active duty, and I was pleased to provide more help for homeless and foster students, who too often face unique problems navigating the college aid process.  Before I turn to some the details of the bill, I really want to thank Senator Kennedy for his leadership in moving these proposals forward and making sure it does right by our students.  

Raising Pell Grants

First, this bill raises the maximum Pell Grant by 25 percent over four years to $5,400 per student.  That will make a real difference for students in my home state of Washington.  In Washington state, in the 1986, the maximum Pell Grant covered 53% of the costs at a public, four-year college.  Today it only covers 33% of those costs. By raising the maximum Pell Grant, this bill will help students in Washington state and across the country attend college.  For Washington state, this bill will make another $39.6 million available in need-based grants next year alone.  Over five years, the bill will provide an additional $340.6 million for low-income students.  

Reasonable Monthly Loan Payments

This bill will also ensure that college graduates are not trapped by high loan payments after college.  It guarantees that borrowers will not have to pay more than 15 percent of their monthly income in student loan payments.  This will bring immediate relief to students who are burdened with excessive loans.  

Another problem with high student loan debt is that it limits the career choices of college graduates.  Many can't afford to take a job in public service and pay back their loans at the same time. 

This bill encourages public service by providing loan forgiveness for graduates who pursue careers in these areas.  

Helps Military Service Members

As I worked on this bill, I thought it was very important to help out military service members who have student loans.  I have worked to allow those who are serving in combat or national emergencies to defer their student loan payments during their deployments and as they transition out of service.  Currently, the law limits how long service members can defer their payments to just three years. As we know, many of our military members have been on active duty much longer than that.  So this bill lifts this three-year limit and makes more service members eligible.  Those who are serving our country have enough to worry about.  Financial challenges and paying back student loans should not be something that they have to worry about when they transition back home.

Opens Doors for Homeless and Foster Students

I was also pleased to help improve college access for homeless and foster students.

These students face tremendous barriers in their education – especially those who don't have a parent or guardian who's able to guide them through the process.  In this bill, I worked to simplify the student aid application process and made homeless and foster students eligible for higher levels of assistance.

Amendment by Senators Nelson (NE) and Burr

Mr. President, there is one amendment that I'm very concerned about because it would tear through this bill and undermine all the progress we're making for students.  That amendment would allow higher subsidies for some lenders, including lenders who acted so irresponsibly in the recent student loan scandals.  The amendment would take money away from students and take money away from Pell Grants.  With this bill, we're trying to help more students afford college.  This amendment would take money away from students and away from Pell Grants, and I don't see why we should change this bill to help fewer students and put the money back into the pockets of lenders. As we move forward on this bill, I hope that we'll reject efforts that hurt students, so we can pass this strong and effective student aid legislation.

To me, it's simple.  If we want our economy to grow, our people to succeed, and our country to be strong, we have to help more students get a college education. This bill will do just that, and I urge my colleagues to support it.