As a proud University of California graduate, I sincerely believe that public education enables everyone to pursue their dreams and move our nation forward. With a troubled economy and millions of Americans out of work through no fault of their own, it is even more important that lawmakers invest in students now as a way to get the country back to work.
When I attended UC Berkeley in the early 1960s, no Californian was priced out of an education. A good work ethic and college degree were usually all it took to enter the middle class. Maintaining low tuition created a system that ultimately paid for itself by keeping California’s best talent in California and by attracting the greatest minds from around the world. It is no accident that major technology firms have thrived in the Silicon Valley and Tri-Valley.
My devotion to quality higher education dates back to my tenure as a state Senator. In 1984, I authored a bill to establish a supplemental salary program to improve recruitment and retention of hard-to-hire faculty at the California State University. Five years later, my legislation funded the construction of $1.25 billion in research facilities across the UC, structures known as the Garamendi buildings. As a UC Regent and CSU Trustee from 2007-2009, I always supported more funding for education and never voted to raise undergraduate tuition.
Unfortunately, drastic cuts and increased student fees have threatened to make education unaffordable and inaccessible. The UC, CSU and our community colleges recently suffered a $1.7 billion cut in state support. Meanwhile, tuition at UC alone recently jumped 9.6 percent — on top of an already implemented 8 percent increase for fall — and nearly 200,000 qualified California students have been denied admission to a UC, CSU or community college in recent years due to budget shortfalls.
The financial burden of education is falling almost entirely on students’ shoulders. That is why I voted for the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, a higher education reform bill that invests $36 billion in Pell Grant scholarships. This is a significant boost for higher education, which is constantly on the chopping block in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. This education reform bill also makes federal loans more affordable through capped monthly payments, invests $2.55 billion in historically black and minority-serving institutions and provides $2 billion for education or career training programs at community colleges. This law will save American students $61 billion over 10 years.
SAFRA is only the first step. President Obama is acting right now to relieve the burden of student loans with his “Pay As You Earn” plan. Beginning this January, six million students and recent graduates can consolidate their loans and reduce their interest rates. Also in 2012, 1.6 million students can cap their loan payments at 10 percent of their discretionary income, and the plan will forgive the balance of debt after 20 years of payments.
Ultimately, we must prioritize college affordability and job creation. The Democrats’ “Make It In America” jobs agenda is built upon exactly these values so we can help our public education system return to its once proud state and take the financial burden away from students. This comprehensive plan to revive our economy would improve public education by investing in campus infrastructure, increasing money available for university research, and creating good jobs for graduates.
Lawmakers need to do their part, but students have a voice too. You should demand more from us in Washington and Sacramento. Pay attention to our votes and our priorities. California’s greatness has always relied on the best education and research in the world, but with drastic cuts, we’re paying for the present by sacrificing our future.
John Garamendi is the U.S. Representative for California’s 10th Congressional District.