Although more than 6 in 10 jobs require some education beyond a high school diploma, the financial burden of attending a college or university leaves higher education out of reach for many young people. As our President and CEO Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson said, “our children will not thrive without these doors being open wide.”
The cost of higher education has nearly doubled since the mid-1990s, and federal and state investments haven’t matched these increased costs. When the Pell Grant program—a need-based funding subsidy provided by the federal government— began in the 1970s, for example, the grants covered more than 70 percent of the cost to attend a public four-year college while today, they cover only 30 percent of the cost. Similarly, state funding for higher education remains below historical levels despite increases in enrollment, leaving students with impossible bills and years of debt.
This is particularly true for Black and Hispanic students, making higher education investments critical to achieve racial equity. Although college enrollment rates have increased in general and across races and ethnicities, racial disparities remain due to continued barriers, including financial ones, as well as inequitable supports and opportunities. Thirty-seven percent of Black young adults and 36 percent of Hispanic young adults were enrolled in college in 2018, compared to 59 percent of Asian young adults and 42 percent of white young adults. Because of wealth disparities, inequitable school funding, and lack of student supports, even larger racial disparities exist after college enrollment, as Black students are less likely to graduate and are more likely to be left with student loan debt than their white peers.
This week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) introduced the College for All Act to address these financial barriers to higher education for students of color and students from lower-income families. The bill would:
- Allow students in families who earn less than $125,000 to attend tuition- and debt-free public colleges and universities as well as public and private Historically Black Colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs);
- Ensure tuition-free community colleges for all students;
- Increase and expand Pell Grants by doubling the maximum grant award from $6,495 to $12,990 for the 2021-22 school year and adjusting for inflation after, expanding eligibility to Dreamers, changing the lifetime eligibility from 12 full-time semesters to 7.5 years, funding Pell Grants as a mandatory program, and stopping the tax of Pell Grants as income;
- Offer $10 billion in federal grants for states to address equity gaps at under-funded public institutions as well as public and private HBCUs, HSIs, TCUs, and other MSIs; and
- Triple federal TRIO funding and double GEAR UP funding to support more first-generation and low-income students, as well as students with disabilities, in enrolling in and graduating from college.
Education has long been considered a “great equalizer,” but in order for our country to fulfill that promise, young people must be able to attend college without being strapped with decades of debt. The Children’s Defense Fund is proud to endorse this promising effort to ensure students from lower-income families and students of color have access to higher education and economic mobility.