With the staggering cost of college a key issue on the presidential campaign trail, Senate Democrats are seizing the opportunity to promote a legislative package designed to address affordability.
On Thursday, lawmakers unveiled the Reducing Educational Debt (RED) Act, comprised of three bills that party members have championed over the last year or two. The package includes legislation introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in 2014 to let borrowers refinance their federal and private student loans at a lower interest rate.
It also features a proposal Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) rolled out last spring to index future Pell Grant awards to inflation to ensure the government aid covers more of the cost of college. Lawmakers estimate that indexing Pell Grant to inflation would increase the maximum award by $1,300 in the 2026-27 award year.
Democratic leaders also reaffirmed their support for President Obama’s call to make community college free, a proposal that anchors the America’s College Promise Act introduced by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) over the summer. That bill would provides a federal match of $3 for every dollar invested by the state to waive community college tuition and fees for eligible students before other financial aid is applied.
Despite public outcry over skyrocketing student debt, Congress has failed to find common ground to reverse the trend. There is little consensus on solutions, though there is bipartisan agreement that the status quo is unsustainable.
“One of the most pressing issues facing millennials and many middle class Americans today is the student debt crisis,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center, in an email. “We need to pass legislation that will put America on path toward debt free college.”
Schumer said his colleagues will be hosting roundtables with students, visiting college campuses, engaging students on social media to get the word out about the slate of bills. The campaign, dubbed In the Red (as in making sure students don’t end up in the red), was quietly kicked off during the president’s state of the union address, where dozens of Senate Democrats hosted students as their guests and donned “Students #InTheRed” buttons.
The release of the package and launch of the campaign arrives days after Obama proposed an expansion of the Pell program to encourage students to take a full load of courses to complete their degrees faster, and avoid taking on more debt. Obama proposed reviving year-round Pell, which was eliminated in 2011 through federal budget cuts, to make it easier for low-income students to take classes during the summer. The administration also wants to raise the maximum Pell award $300 for students who take 15 or more credits a semester.
Advancing any of the Democrats’ proposals in the Republican-controlled Congress would be no small feat, especially in an election year. Still, Democratic leaders say bringing further attention to what they see as a student debt crisis may sway Congress to take action.
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