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Murphy, Schatz, Murray, Sanders Introduce College Affordability and Innovation Act

WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) introduced the College Affordability and Innovation Act of 2014, new legislation to make college more affordable for students across the United States. Over the last 30 years, the cost of college has increased by a whopping 300 percent, forcing some students to take on crushing student loan burdens or putting a degree entirely out of reach for others. Student loan debt is now the highest form of personal debt in the nation, reaching over $1.1 trillion for 38 million student loan borrowers across the country.

During last night’s State of the Union address to Congress, President Obama reaffirmed the importance of reducing the cost of college in order to expand economic opportunity for middle class and low-income Americans. The College Affordability and Innovation Act aims to put an end to these rising college costs and ensure students of all backgrounds have access to quality education with less of a need to take out costly student loans. The bill focuses on two principles that the Administration has also prioritized in its work to expand economic opportunity: innovation and accountability. While some colleges and education experts have developed new and creative ideas to reduce the cost of college, not enough colleges have actually put these ideas into practice. Furthermore, the cost of college is now at its highest and still continues to rise, and the federal government invests more money than ever before in higher education. In spite of its investment, in many ways schools are not held accountable to students and American taxpayers.

“College affordability is one of the biggest middle class issues of our time - no generation escapes the issue,” said Schatz. “A higher education is the best way to for people to  move up the economic ladder.  The federal government should subsidize higher education, but if we’re giving $140 billion in financial aid to institutes of higher learning, we need to make college more affordable, not less.  Each college can have whatever mission it wants, but if these institutions want to receive federal dollars, our bill says that part of that mission must involve affordability and access.”

“Over the past decade, families in Connecticut have seen the cost of the things they need increase faster than their wages. The cost of a college education has soared to prohibitively high levels, preventing countless prospective students from obtaining a degree, and the opportunities they deserve. I’ve heard from students and educators all across Connecticut and the message is clear: we need college administrators to wake up every day thinking about how they’re going to bring down the cost of college for students,” said Murphy. “Our legislation will incentivize schools to create new, innovative programs to bring down the cost of college while improving the quality of a degree, and will set new standards for schools that receive federal funding so that they’re more accountable to students and the taxpayer. Reducing the cost of college needs to be a top priority as we work together to increase economic opportunities for all Americans. I look forward to working with Senators Schatz, Murray and my colleagues on this legislation in the months to come.”

“At a time when we’re working to reduce inequality and create paths to the middle class, I’ve heard from too many students in Washington state who are struggling with student loan debt, and even worse, from others who are hesitant to go to college because the costs are simply too high. That’s unacceptable, and that’s why I’m proud to co-sponsor this legislation,” said Murray. 
“In the short term, this legislation incentivizes institutions to innovate to reduce costs, and over the long term, it will give students the opportunities and resources they need to make smart decisions on higher education.”

To encourage colleges to innovate and be accountable to the students they serve, the bill does the following:

  • Creates a new evidence-based competitive pilot program to encourage innovation. Currently, there is little incentive for colleges to test ideas that may reduce the cost of college. This new pilot program would spark innovation by authorizing and funding a new evidence-based competitive pilot program to encourage institutions to develop programs that offer high-quality education, lower costs, and reduce the time for completing a degree. These programs would potentially include online courses, competency-based degrees, dual-enrollment programs, and accelerated degrees.
  • Implements rigorous evaluations for new programs. Under the Murphy-Schatz bill, institutions that receive funding to implement new, innovative programs that reduce the cost of college would undergo rigorous evaluations of these programs to ensure that students are getting a quality education.
  • Creates new commission to recommend minimum accountability standards for all institutions that receive Title IV dollars. In order to ensure that all schools are delivering quality education for their students, the Murphy-Schatz bill would create a commission of students, education experts, and stakeholders to recommend minimum standards for each undergraduate program in the United States to meet in order to remain eligible for federal funding. Those standards will focus on the access schools provide to low- and middle-income students, affordability, and value.
  • Rewards institutions that do best on new accountability measures.  Institutions that do best on these measures will receive funding awards to be used for additional need-based aid for students. Institutions that consistently fall below the minimum standards created by the new commission will be incentivized to improve by requiring them to improve over a gradual period or face a loss of Title IV eligibility.

The bill has been endorsed by the United States Student Association (USSA), which represents more than four million students enrolled in postsecondary education.  “Students can't afford to continue taking on thousands of dollars in debt and enter a workforce with very low job prospects,” said Sophia Zaman, President of USSA.  “USSA applauds Senator Chris Murphy and Senator Brian Schatz for leading this effort to ensure that college becomes more accessible and affordable without sacrificing the quality of education that the American public deserves.”

The Hawai‘i Association of College Admissions Counselors has also expressed support for the bill because of its focus on helping students.  “We are excited that Senator Schatz is tackling the problem of rising college costs,”  said Nelson Chee, President Elect for HACAC.  “The high school students we work with and their families are worrying more and more about how they can afford to pay for a college education.  For many this is a real barrier for them in taking that next step to higher education.  Senator Schatz’s bill will refocus colleges on what really matters – providing a good education at an affordable price to all students.” 

Complete College America, a nonprofit that works with states to increase college completion, sees the bill as an opportunity for students.  “To secure America’s future, many more Americans must complete college — especially from groups too often left behind on graduation day,” said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.  “We applaud Senators Murphy and Schatz and their colleagues for their efforts to maintain access to affordable, quality higher education, inspire innovative new strategies to boost college completion, and hold accountable colleges and universities as full partners in this vital effort.”