Marshall Anthony Jr., senior policy analyst for Higher Education at the Center for American Progress, testified on the importance of expanding access to higher education before the House Ways and Means Committee on June 29, 2021.1
Chairperson Pascrell, Ranking Member Kelly, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I appear before you as a researcher on higher education, but I have also lived the failures of the higher education system.
As a young, Black man from a low-income, single-parent household, I received the maximum Pell Grant throughout my undergraduate studies to help pay for college. But I did not have enough financial aid to cover other necessities such as housing, food, textbooks, or transportation. That meant when I should have been sleeping, I spent countless nights staring at the ceiling worrying about expensive course materials that professors required me to purchase. It also meant canceling my meal plan in order to pay for gas to get to campus and participate in internships. And it even meant chipping in at times to help my family cover a utility bill.
Through hard work, yes, but also a great deal of good fortune, I made it here before you today. But far too many other Black, brown, low-income, and disabled college students never make it to the graduation stage to collect a diploma—including those very close to me.
A large portion of college students today are also, in many cases, working adults who are attending college part time and raising children.2 Like some of my family members, classmates, and students I’ve taught, they are juggling demands that would strike you or me as nearly impossible—all in a desire to give their family a better life.
Never has a college degree been more necessary to make it in this country. Nearly two-thirds of jobs require some form of postsecondary education, and yet our higher education system is not equipped to do its job.3 Consider these four troubling facts:
- First, the Pell Grant is not what it used to be. Pell is the cornerstone federal aid program for students from low-income backgrounds to help them pay for college. At its peak, close to 50 years ago, Pell once covered nearly 80 percent of the cost of attendance at public four-year institutions.4 Today, the maximum Pell award covers less than one-third of the average cost of tuition, fees, and room and board.5
- Second, if you think students today can work their way through college, think again. In 47 states, on top of any and all financial aid they receive, low-income students need to work more than 15 hours per week to pay for a public four-year education.6 This is an issue because studies suggest that working over that threshold can slow students’ progress toward a degree or force them to leave college altogether.7
- Third, community colleges operate on only half the revenue that public four-year institutions receive.8 This means that community colleges don’t have the resources they need to adequately serve low-income students as well as Black and Latinx students who are more likely to attend community colleges.9
- And fourth, even before the pandemic, public higher education was already in deep trouble. When the pandemic began, only 18 states had fully recovered from cuts made in the wake of the Great Recession.10
These are just a few of the reasons why so many students leave college with no degree and debt they cannot repay.11 Black borrowers—who are hard hit by employment discrimination12 and have nearly 10 times less wealth than white families13—are most likely to suffer.14
The system has failed too many students. The ability to graduate should not be conditioned on a student having good fortune! But we’ve created and perpetuated a system where that unfortunate reality has been the standard for far too long.
The United States can and should do better.
I ask you today to reinvest in an equitable American dream by better supporting college students, limiting debt, and investing in community colleges and public four-year institutions in order to build a higher education system that works for people from all walks of life.
Thank you again for the opportunity to testify, and I look forward to answering your questions.