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Schatz, Pocan Reintroduce Legislation To End Student Loan Debt Crisis

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai’i) and U.S. Representative Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) reintroduced the Debt-Free College Act, legislation that will reverse the growing student debt crisis in the United States. The bill restores a path to affordable college by providing states incentives through matching grants to increase investments in public higher education and provide students with debt-free college.

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. The bicameral legislation, first introduced in 2018, was the first proposal to go beyond free tuition, and ensure that students leave college without the financial burden of student loan debt.

“If we are going to be serious about solving the student loan debt crisis, we need to focus on the real cost to students and their families – and that includes books, room and board, and supplies,” said Senator Schatz. “Our bill brings states back to the table and leverages federal dollars to reinvest in public education, and help people cover the full cost of college.”

“Every student in America deserves the opportunity to get a college education without being crushed for years by student debt,” said Congressman Pocan. “The Debt-Free College Act creates a critical federal-state partnership that would make debt-free college a reality for students within five years. Student debt isn’t just tuition—it’s books, housing, supplies and food, and this bill reflects the reality of those costs. If we truly believe in the value of our education system, then we should be making it easier for students to pursue higher education, not financially impossible. This bill is an integral first step to ensure that college is accessible to every person in this country.”

Beyond tuition and fees, the total cost of attendance—room and board, books and supplies, and other expenses—has forced 45 million Americans to take on debt to cover their financial need. College debt has more than tripled since 2006 and now exceeds $1.7 trillion dollars, which is second only to mortgage debt and surpasses even credit card debt.

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. A Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System survey found that almost 50 percent of student loan borrowers who struggle to repay their loans said that they would miss or make partial student loan payments in an effort to cover a $400 emergency expense, while 13 percent said they would skip a rent or mortgage payment and 22 percent said that would skip a utility bill.

“Student debt is one of the most pressing crises facing our country. The very purpose of education is to set students up for a successful future, not hold them back,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The reality is that far too many college students are buried in debt by the time they have their diploma in hand. It’s on us to do more and provide a better future for students seeking to further their education. I’m proud to join my colleagues to introduce the Debt-Free College Act to help alleviate this burden and ensure an affordable pathway to higher education for all.”

“I was the first in my family to go to college—an opportunity that was made possible in large part because of scholarship opportunities and jobs I worked at college,” said Senator Merkley. “But between the rising costs of living and tuition, stories like mine are increasingly few and far between. Our students are being crushed by mountains of student loan debt and struggling to make their sky-high payments, instead of starting new businesses, buying homes, and living their American Dreams. Especially as we set out to recover from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, we must address the student loan debt crisis and work to ensure that higher education is a gateway to opportunity, not financial ruin.”

“Student loans have become a national economic crisis and have placed nearly 45 million Americans, especially low-income and students of color seeking economic security and prosperity through higher education, into deep financial debt,” said Senator Booker. “We must bring this crisis to an end and ensure that higher education is affordable without signing students on to a lifetime of debt and financial stress. By providing matching federal funds to states, our bill incentivizes states to help students pay for the full cost of a college degree - including the cost of living - without taking on debt.”

“The Debt-Free College Act is an important step toward increasing college access, equity, and affordability for students who want to pursue higher education. By passing the Debt-Free College Act, while also taking steps to strengthen Pell Grants, invest in affordable community college options, and go after bad actors in the for-profit college industry, Congress can take action right now to ease the financial burdens on students and their families and invest in the future of our country,” said Senator Brown.

“Student loan debt in America amounts to more than $1.5 trillion – a staggering figure. The weight of this debt has forced young people to put off buying cars and houses, starting families, and saving for retirement,” said Senator Durbin. “It is time to address student debt for this generation of Americans and the future of our country’s economic growth. I’m proud to reintroduce the Debt-Free College Act with Senator Schatz today to give students a chance at quality higher education without debt.”

“Higher education should be a path to prosperity, not debt. But unfortunately, college costs and student loan debt are holding back an entire generation and creating a drag on economic growth for our country,” said Senator Baldwin. “Washington must do more to address this problem with real solutions. The Debt-Free College Act will provide relief to America’s students by creating a state-federal partnership to make higher education more affordable and help graduates get ahead.”

“Every student deserves a chance to get a college education without being crushed by debt,” said Senator Warren. “That’s why I’m glad to join my colleagues in reintroducing the Debt-Free College Act, which would allow our students to build an economic future for themselves and their families."

The bill is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

In the House, the bill is cosponsored by U.S. Representatives Brendan Boyle (D-Penn.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), Raùl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Nikema Williams (D-Ga.).

The bill is endorsed by the Center for Law and Social Policy, Institute for Higher Education Policy, Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, Social Security Works, Young Invincibles, The Education Trust, and Council for Opportunity in Education.

“Higher education is one of the best investments we can make as a society to empower young people to earn degrees and credentials that set them up to succeed in their careers, contribute to the economy, and lead lives with better health outcomes and higher levels of civic engagement. The Debt Free College Act would establish the kind of federal-state partnership needed to make college affordable for all students and make a much-needed down payment on long-term, equitable economic recovery and growth. Young Invincibles thanks Senator Schatz and the co-sponsors of this necessary legislation to break the cycle of increasing college cost and student indebtedness, and we look forward to supporting it through the 117th Congress,” said Dr. Kyle Southern, Young Invincibles Policy and Advocacy Director for Higher Education and Workforce.

“Free college programs have great potential to help more students from low-income backgrounds access and complete a college education. Whether that potential is realized depends on program design and details. The Debt Free College Act is an example of a targeted, equity-driven free college proposal that will make higher education possible for students who might not otherwise be able to attend. Recognizing that the cost of college is more than just tuition, the bill will cover both tuition and non-tuition costs for Pell Grant recipients, eliminating their need to borrow. Alongside a strengthened Pell Grant, the Debt Free College Act will remove barriers and address longstanding inequities in college access and success for the students most in need of support,” said Mamie Voight, Interim President for the Institute for Higher Education Policy.