WASHINGTON — A number of state universities and community colleges across the Capitol Region hope that the Biden administration will make colleges more affordable to lower-income students and minority groups as well as provide relief for those paying off student loans.
President Joe Biden campaigned on a plan that included making public universities and colleges free for students with families earning under $125,000 a year, doubling Pell grants for those with financial need and forgiving student debt. On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order extending the pause on federal student loan repayments due to the ongoing pandemic.
Biden has also been pressured by lawmakers to cancel federal student loan debt. According to EducationData.org, New York residents owe an average of $90 billion in student loan debt.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a tweet on Feb. 4 that the president “continues to support the cancelling of student debt to bring relief to students and families.”
On the same day, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Alma Adams, D-N.C., and Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., called on Biden to use executive action to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for individuals.
“As more jobs require post-secondary education and given the economic fallout from the pandemic, we must continue to do all we can to make college affordable to all,” said Jim Malatras, chancellor of The State University of New York. “We welcome and appreciate any additional support we can get, and we are excited to work with the Biden administration to that end.”
Nathan Gonyea, officer in charge at SUNY Empire State College, said that he hopes that the administration focuses on providing financial help so low-income students can enter college.
Gonyea said first lady Jill Biden, who has a doctorate and teaches at a community college, can be an ally, saying that she “gives a voice right in the ear of the president.”
Other SUNY leaders also emphasized the importance of federal support for ensuring higher education is affordable regardless of income.
Jordan Carleo-Evangelist, a spokesman at the University at Albany, said that SUNY “already provides one of the most affordable, high-quality college educations in the country.”
“Proper state and federal support are critical to helping keep it that way,” he said.
Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, said the Biden administration also must recognize the need to address other barriers to making community colleges more accessible and more affordable. They include unemployment during the pandemic, child care and lack of access to proper technology, she said.
“We feel confident that the Biden administration has a clear understanding of what those support services are and what the needs are,” Parham said.
The SUNY leaders also discussed the impact that student debt cancellation would have on the universities.
SUNY Cobleskill President Marion Terenzio said debt cancellation could be beneficial if “desired outcomes and are built into the plan, which will provide further direction as to how debt forgiveness moves the agenda of building an educated citizenry.”
Reforms should “should include the equivalent of a 360-degree evaluation,” she said. “Most reforms address only one feature without taking into account the highly interconnected nature of student readiness for college, societal expectations and higher education’s readiness for contemporary trends and disruptions,” she said.
Rachel Gentry, assistant director of federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said that her organization has recommended that Congress “explore debt forgiveness options that are targeted to borrowers with the greatest need.”
But she also emphasized the need to double the maximum Pell grant, which now is $6,345, because the money does not need to be repaid.
“The Pell Grant program is really the cornerstone of the federal student aid program,” Gentry said.