Prospering with an affordable college education

In this Dec. 21, 2014 file photo, late light falls on Wheeler Hall, South Hall and the Campanile on the University of California campus in Berkeley, Calif.

Millions of American college students will walk across the graduation stage this spring cheered on by family and friends. They will laugh, cry, celebrate and plan for the future — one profoundly bolstered by the lasting value of a college education.

But seemingly oblivious to the joy and promise of graduation season, members of Congress are pushing a bill that would undermine college access and affordability and increase college costs for students and their families.

In its current form, the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill, known as the PROSPER Act, would make higher education more expensive, undermine student aid programs and eliminate important student consumer protections.

Under the bill being weighed by lawmakers, some 72,000 University of California students would feel the effect of eliminating the in-school student loan subsidy, an action that would add an estimated $70 million in student loan debt to each new freshman class. It would eliminate other loan and grant programs and cut federal work-study programs vital to both undergraduate and graduate students, potentially putting a UC education out of reach for the many first-generation and low-income California students we serve.

In addition, the bill excludes mandatory inflation adjustments for Pell Grants, further eroding the value of a grant that has already decreased substantially in purchasing power over time. In 1975, Pell Grants covered 79 percent of the cost of higher education, while today they cover just 29 percent, the lowest level in more than 40 years.

While the University is glad that Congress is working to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, it has become clear that the changes proposed in the PROSPER Act will destabilize critical federal financial aid programs that help college students of all backgrounds access a life-changing education.

That’s why I joined California State University Chancellor Timothy White and California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley in sending a letter to Congress outlining our concerns about the PROSPER Act.

Our public institutions of higher education are committed — as they have been for generations — to providing affordable, accessible and equitable pathways to success for our students. Unfortunately, the PROSPER Act would negatively affect the 2.8 million students our institutions collectively serve, and many millions more across the nation.

UC is proud to offer one of the nation’s most robust financial aid packages — a combination of institutional, state and federal aid that work together to ensure that cost is not a barrier to enrollment and graduation. If Congress is truly committed to supporting students as they work to improve their lives through higher education, members need to craft a new reauthorization bill that truly benefits students — without further mortgaging their futures.

Janet Napolitano is the president of the University of California system of 10 campuses, five academic medical centers, three affiliated national laboratories and a division of agriculture and natural resources.