U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, recently discussed her efforts to make higher education more accessible and affordable for everyone—including by addressing longstanding systemic inequities during a virtual townhall discussion. Murray discussed the challenges students face, her vision for higher education, and her ongoing collaboration with the White House on higher education in the proposed American Families Plan.
“As a former community college instructor in Washington state, I know how life changing higher education can be for our students and families. It was thanks to Pell Grants and student loans that I was able to graduate and get a great education from Washington State University,” said Murray. “As we look to build back stronger and fairer from the pandemic, we are on the cusp of delivering a historic investment in higher education that will transform the lives of millions. When we invest in higher education, we are investing in our families and our future as a country by helping people pursue new skills and creating a more competitive workforce for the 21st century. I’m working closely every day with my colleagues in Congress and the Biden-Harris administration to make higher education more affordable and accessible for everyone.”
During the town hall, Murray highlighted her recently introduced America’s College Promise Act, legislation which the American Families Plan’s free community college proposal is modeled after. The America’s College Promise Act will create new federal-state partnerships that provide two years of tuition-free access to community or technical college programs and significant tuition and fee grant aid for two years at an eligible four-year historically Black college or university (HBCU) or minority-serving institution (MSI). Senator Murray also highlighted the $40 billion in funding she secured for colleges and universities through the American Rescue Plan to get their students much-needed emergency financial aid and ensure colleges can implement public health measures and help put an end to this virus. 7.5% of these funds are dedicated for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-serving Institutions, and other Minority-Serving Institutions. She also highlighted a provision in the American Rescue Plan that ensures all student loan forgiveness is tax free.
According to reports, the current crisis of affordability has led to a steep college enrollment decline, particularly for students with low-incomes and students of color. As of fall 2020, high-minority and high-poverty high schools saw a 9.4 percent and 11.4 percent decline in college enrollment, respectively. And over the last 40 years, we have seen the most growth in jobs requiring higher levels of job preparation, including education and training. Today, 70 percent of jobs are held by people with more than a high school degree.
Murray’s America’s College Promise Act legislation will ensure that first-time students and workers wanting to reskill can enroll in a community college to earn a degree or credential for free. Senator Murray has long fought to make college more affordable for students across the country, and has supported free community college since then-President Obama proposed his plan in 2015.
Notably, Murray, a recipient of Pell Grants herself, also previewed her forthcoming reintroduction of the Pell Grant Preservation & Expansion Act, which would help millions of low-income students offset the rising costs of college by doubling the maximum Pell Grant over several years, and indexing the grant to inflation thereafter. This legislation would help meet the rising costs of college in addition to making the Pell Grant program fully mandatory funding so that it is secure for future generations.