Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) of the 3rd congressional district spoke to students last Monday urging the younger generation present to vote and expressing his views about prioritizing the future of higher education.
One student initially sparked the discussion on college affordability by asking Scott if he was working on any legislation that would help refinance student loans or any legislation similar to the thwarted proposals of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass).
Warren’s legislation pushed to lower interest rates on federal and private student loans to around 3.86 percent for those who borrowed prior to 2010, but the legislation died on the senate floor last summer.
“One of the problems I see from student loans is that the government makes a profit from them. You ought to be subsidizing, not profiting,” Scott said. “I’d like to see a 0 percent student loan (interest) rate. I think Elizabeth Warren’s idea is that you do not profit from (student loan interest rates).”
The House Democratic Caucus elected Scott on Nov. 19, 2014 to lead the Democratic Party on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Soon after other senior Democrats left the committee, Scott became the ranking Democrat on the committee.
However, because the Democrats are the minority in the House now they are merely responding to what the Republicans are doing. They have yet to propose any new legislation pertaining to college affordability.
In the previous years, Scott has been a chief patron of increasing the maximum amount of money a student can receive under the Pell Grant in order to reduce the total amount of tuition the student has to pay.
Although no specific legislation has been proposed, Scott said he views this as one of many ways to reduce the cost of education for the students.
“Increasing Pell Grants is one of the most effective, direct ways that you can increase access (to college), but Pell Grants have not kept up with tuition inflation,” he said.
Scott operates under the premise that college tuition has increased not because the cost of education has increased but because of the decrease in the amount of support the state has allotted its public universities.
“One of the reasons that tuition at (colleges) has gone up isn’t because the cost of education has gone up but it’s because state support has gone down. It used to be that state covered about two-thirds of the cost of education, now it is down to about one third,” Scott said.
The congressman repeatedly said that addressing the issue of college affordability is a prioritiy.He cited a tax extension passed by Congress in 2012 as a point of reference for where the majority of Congress has set its priorities.
In a press release following his No vote on H.R. 8, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 or the Fiscal Cliff deal, Scott said, “Responsibly reducing our budget deficit requires making tough, unpopular choices. We didn’t do that today since this bill does nothing to reduce our deficit. In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill will add $3.9 trillion to our deficit. It does, however, make the task of responsibly reducing our deficit all the more difficult and makes it much more likely that seniors, the disabled, students, and our most vulnerable communities will bear the greatest burden when Congress eventually pays for what we did today.”
The Fiscal Cliff deal attempted to avoid sequestration or “across-the-board” spending cuts by extending the Bush-era “Middle Class” tax cuts. However, the deal will have long-term impacts on the nation’s economy and budgeting, Scott claimed.
“We (Congress) passed a tax cut extension that cost $3.9 trillion,” Scott said. “We needed a couple billion dollars — single digit billions — is all we needed to keep the student loan interest rates down. So it’s a matter of priorities, we should have got the student interest rate and a couple of other things taken care of and maybe we could have only afforded a $3.8 trillion tax cut extension.”
A fraction of the money added to the deficit could have been used to address the rising costs of tuition and create a substantial amount of jobs, Scott said. The notion that we have the money to address the issue of college affordability and increase the amount of prospective jobs for college graduates was emphasized as he stated just how much money was needed to achieve those goals.
“If we had a jobs program maybe we could have only afforded $3 trillion,” Scott said. “Students are having trouble finding jobs (…) and when half of one trillion is all it takes to get everyone on unemployment today and give them all a $50,000 a year job — all of them — we passed a $3.9 trillion no-jobs bill.”
Nancy Orozco, a freshman international relations major at VCU, said she felt that Scott’s visit to the university was interactive and informative because of the wide variety of issues discussed. But was particularly surprised about the information Rep. Scott provided when it came to the issue of college affordability.
“It surprised me,” Orozco said. “The fact that he said that student tuition and interest rates could be lowered so easily surprised me so much. I knew it was something we could work at, but it really caught my attention. I really wish we cared more about education.”
An issue many college students contemplate in today’s sluggish economy is whether or not obtaining a college degree is truly worth it. Forking over large sums of cash and entrenching themselves in debt can be quite the deterrent.
One student, Daniel Demurs, a pre-med junior at VCU said, “It’s really scary thinking about the big ‘what if,’ what if you don’t get into the program you’re hoping to get into or what if you don’t at least get a decent paying job after you graduate, and then you’re stuck with thousands of dollars in debt with no sure way to pay it back.”
Scott addressed this worrisome dilemma many students face, making it clear that he believes a college degree is indeed worth it. He said a person with a college degree would likely have a better life trajectory than someone who merely has a high school diploma.
However, he expressed an understanding that many prospective students rationally view higher education as a huge financial burden and therefore enter fields of study that can assure them a job that will help pay off their debt at better rates than others.
In addition, Scott also mentioned that it is the university’s responsibility to make sure a student is properly prepared to achieve their career goals. However, he said higher education should not be pursued strictly for monetary gains, stating that it becomes a challenge when universities monetize education because then students seek to get a “dollar value for their education” as a result.
“A lot of college education can’t be monetized, you can major in philosophy or something like that and you may not get a job (in relation to that degree) but you will be adding to the intellectual diversity of our community. So in terms of student loans and making overall college education available we have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Concluding his stance on the need for Congress to reorganize its priorities when it comes to discretionary spending, Scott reiterated his stance on avoiding cuts to vital social programs like Social Security, Medicare and education.
“I think we make a big difference in terms of what our priorities are, we can get education back in the high priority. We can maintain Social Security and Medicare so people can have a dignified retirement,” Scott said. “But you can’t do it if you start off with a big fat tax cut and then try to figure out how to cut your way down to where the revenues are. Let’s put it all on the table, make some choices, and set some priorities.”
VCU students and citizens alike asked the congressman a wide variety of questions demonstrating concern on an array of topics at Monday night’s event. Some other topics discussed were net neutrality, offshore drilling, corporate influence in politics and early childhood education, among others.
In the coming days Scott will be working with Republicans and Democrats on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) also known as No Child Left Behind. The bill will be voted upon this week in the House of Representatives.