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Pocan, Ellison Introduce The Degrees Not Debt Act

Jul 13, 2016
Press Release
Bill Makes Debt-Free College a Reality; Encourages State Reinvestment

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) introduced The Degrees Not Debt Act. This legislation would create a state-federal partnership program with the Department of Education, states, and public colleges or universities in order to ensure college affordability becomes a reality for all Americans.

The bill would reward states which contribute more towards their public university system by providing federal matching dollars to encourage reinvestment. The Degrees Not Debt Act also requires that secondary costs, such as books and housing, for students living at 350% of the poverty line (approx. $85,000/year for a family of four) are fully met through a combination of work study and financial aid awards. This legislation is a critical step towards making debt-free college a reality for working families.                                                                                                          

“With student debt skyrocketing, it’s time to create a sustainable path for students to graduate from college with degrees, not debt. This legislation provides an incentive for states to contribute more towards their public universities, while ensuring tuition costs do not continue to rise exorbitantly,” Rep. Pocan said. “In addition to tuition, The Degrees Not Debt Act would also cover housing and textbooks for low-income students, which are often an additional cost barrier. I am proud to introduce this legislation with Congressman Ellison so we can help make college affordable and accessible for everyone."

“Today, a college degree is more important than it’s ever been – and going to college has never been more expensive. Public universities used to be affordable for almost every student who wanted to attend,” Rep. Ellison said. “But the cost of getting a higher education, and the crippling loan debt most students are forced to shoulder, makes it harder for millions of young Americans to buy a house, open a business, or start a family. This bill would ensure that the cost of going to college, from tuition to books to campus meal plans, don’t get in anyone’s way.”

“When students walk across the stage on graduation day, they should take their diplomas with them into a brighter future,” continued Rep. Ellison. “That’s a promise every single public college and university should be able to make. Our debt-free college plan will help our schools make that promise. And it’ll help them keep it.”

“Students, particularly those from working class backgrounds and communities of color, have borne the brunt of crippling and counterproductive cuts to public colleges and universities for over three decades,” said Heather McGhee, President of Demos. “The ability to attend and graduate college without debt was once the norm, and returning to that system requires a new federal-state partnership that encourages states to reinvest in public higher education and targets resources at students for whom college has simply become unaffordable. We applaud this effort and believe it is urgently needed in order to renew the promise of affordable and debt-free public college.”

Public colleges and universities rely heavily on state funding to operate and keep the cost of tuition low. In the last decade, state funding for public higher education has declined due to state budget cuts, lingering economic slowdown following the Great Recession of 2008, and other factors. Today, state funding for public institutions remains below the pre-recession average, and according to the think tank Demos, the decline in state support was responsible for almost 80% of the rise in tuition costs between 2001 and 2011.

The Degrees Not Debt Act would provide federal grants to public universities in states that have committed to reinvesting state-based revenue in higher education. The bill sets federal matching rates based on how much funding a state provides for public higher education operating support on a per student basis, compared and indexed to the maximum Pell Grant award.

How the Bill Would Work:

Step 1: States agree to participate in the program.

Step 2: A state would receive a federal match grant based on how much the state provides public universities.

Step 3: Public universities commit to meeting the financial needs of students at 350% of the poverty line (families earning approx. $85,000).

Step 4: Public universities commit to keep tuition rates indexed to inflation, with the option to seek a waiver pending extenuating circumstances including years of being locked into previous budget cuts.                                                 

Result: Tuition costs would be controlled for students and universities would receive a greater investment from both the state and federal government while ensuring the full financial needs of students at 350% of the poverty line are met.

The legislation is also supported by the following groups: AFL-CIO, Americans for Democratic Action, Coalition on Human Needs, Daily Kos, National Education Association (NEA), MoveOn, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Young Invincibles, Economic Policy Institute, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), and Demos.

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