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Oversight Subcommittee Looks to Expand Higher Education

June 30, 2021 by Ansley Puckett
Institute of Advanced Studies. Princeton, New Jersey. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee held a hearing on Tuesday to discuss expanding access to higher education.  

The virtual hearing examined problems facing students today, including the pandemic, student loans and cost of tuition. Five witnesses presented testimony on these problems and answered questions from the subcommittee members.  

The Pell Grant became a focal point for witnesses, including witness Marshall Anthony Jr., who testified that the Pell Grant is not what it used to be and now covers less than one-third of the average cost of tuition and other university fees. 

Anthony urged the committee to make college and universities more equitable in order to build a higher education system that works for everyone.  

“The system has failed too many students,” Anthony said. “The ability to graduate should not be conditional upon a student having good fortune. But we’ve created and perpetuated a system where that unfortunate reality has been the standard for far too long.”  

Susan Johnston, the president and chief executive officer of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, also presented testimony encouraging members to increase the Pell Grant.  

Johnston said federal policies have the opportunity to provide greater support for students and their families and provide direct aid, making them more important than tax incentives.  

“Tax incentives can and should be used by Congress to aid students with the cost of college, but receiving a tax credit for education-related expenses requires first having the funds to enroll in college. Federal grants help provide this access,” Johnston said.  

Subcommittee members were also interested in educational disparities for low-income and minority students. Anthony, the senior policy analyst for the Center for American Progress, shared his experience as a student who struggled to pay for extra expenses despite receiving the maximum Pell Grant.  

“Through hard work, yes, but also a great deal of good fortune, I made it here before you today,” Anthony said. “But far too many other Black, Brown, and low-income college students never make it to the graduation stage to collect a diploma.” 

Steven Rose, the president of Passaic County Community College in New Jersey, said enrollment at his school is 80% minority students, and during the pandemic, enrollment dropped by 17% this year. 

Rose said the outlook for Fall 2021 is grim, and students who do plan to attend college in the fall are coming in with greater academic deficiencies. 

Susan Dynarski, a professor of public policy, education and economics at the University of Michigan, also spoke on the growing gap in educational attainment, citing that only 9% of low-income students manage to earn a BA when they grow up compared to high-income children, 54% of whom earn a BA.  

“In my opinion, it is not the job of government to make Harvard and Yale affordable to the handful who can attend those elite institutions,” Dynarski said. “It is the job of government to make a solid college education affordable to the millions for whom a degree from a public college is a ticket into the middle class.” 

However, witnesses continued to emphasize that a college education is a valuable investment, meaning that in order to expand access to higher education, Congress must bridge the gap facing students today.

Witness Scott Pulsipher, president of the online school Western Governors University, suggested the committee use technology to make education more accessible. Witnesses also encouraged flexible education, expanded options for education and better student loan management.  

“For advantaged students, the education pathway can be a natural extension of one’s life journey,” Pulsipher said. “For those marginalized, it can be a mountain traverse. For higher education to fulfill its promise, it must be a pathway that can be traveled by every individual where students have flexibility, support and quality of instruction to succeed.” 

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