Heinrich Introduces Plan To Make College Affordable

Degrees Not Debt Act would increase value of Pell Grants, improve accountability for higher education funding

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) introduced the Degrees Not Debt Act to ensure higher education is accessible and affordable to all New Mexicans. The legislation is part of Senator Heinrich’s initiative to build a brighter economic future for students in New Mexico.

“There’s no doubt that a college education is still one of the surest ways to gain the skills needed to build a successful career, but we need to make sure New Mexicans have a fair shot at affording it without being crushed by debt,” said Senator Heinrich. “Instead of giving tax breaks to the wealthy, we should be investing in a better economic future for our students. The Degrees Not Debt Act will make college affordable by increasing the value of the Pell Grant and holding states accountable in maintaining higher education funding.”

“UNM enthusiastically supports this legislation. It provides enhanced access, funding and sustainability for Pell Grant recipients who continue to be among the most vulnerable students pursuing higher education. Demographic changes in New Mexico and the nation make this legislation prudent and timely as more students struggle with college affordability,” said University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes.

Instead of addressing the rising cost of higher education or the crushing burden of student debt, President Trump and Republicans in Congress passed a $1.7 trillion tax scam that will benefit corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Senator Heinrich’s Degrees Not Debt Act would reverse some of the biggest tax giveaways to the wealthy and instead invest resources in making college affordable for families by bringing the Pell Grant into the 21st century.

The Degrees Not Debt Act would raise the value of Pell Grants from their current value of a little more than $6,000 up to $10,000 a year and ensure that almost all families who need help paying for college receive the full Pell Grant. In New Mexico, $10,000 per year would cover the full cost of tuition at all of our in-state colleges and universities. It would also help cover some of the living expenses like food and housing that make up the full cost of attending college. Pell Grants were created more than 50 years ago to make a college education accessible to all low and middle-income families and are the primary form of financial aid for millions of students. During the 1970s, their value steadily increased from $452 to $1,800. In those days, that went a long way toward covering the cost of a college education. Since then, the cost of college has grown five times faster than the rate of inflation, and Pell Grants have failed to keep pace.

The economic downturn of the last decade has forced steep cuts to state education budgets across the country. In the 2015-2016 school year, states spent 11 percent less per student than they did a decade ago. New Mexico has reduced its per student spending by $4,509 since 2008. As a result, colleges and universities are increasing tuition to make up the difference. Under the Degrees Not Debt Act, states like New Mexico would be required to reinvest in colleges and universities to receive Pell Grant funding for their students.

Senator Heinrich first unveiled the legislation earlier this year with students at Middle College High School on the UNM Gallup campus. The discussion focused on challenges students face in accessing higher education and how federal resources like the Pell Grant can help families afford college.

A copy of the bill is available here and a fact sheet is available here.

Specifically, the Degrees Not Debt Act Would:

  • Increase the Federal Pell Grant to $10,000 per year and index future Pell Grants to the consumer price index.
  • Lower the expected family contribution to $0 for most families with an Adjusted Gross Income under 250 percent of federal poverty level. An estimated 60 percent of individuals and families attending college in America would receive the full $10,000 a year to attend school.
  • Hold states accountable to maintain or increase higher education funding. State governments must maintain or increase appropriations to their higher education institutions to get this Pell Grant funding for their students.
  • Increase college transparency regarding costs and student outcomes. Higher education institutions must prominently display key indicators that students and parents look at when making the decision about where to go to school.