Episode 37: A Conversation With Congressman Bobby Scott


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Aired February 25, 2021

Hosts Jon Fansmith, Sarah Spreitzer, and Mushtaq Gunja talk with House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) about the recent past, present, and future of higher education legislation under his committee’s purview, including COVID-19 relief funding, doubling the maximum Pell Grant and “second chance” Pell for incarcerated individuals, student loan debt forgiveness, and more. ​ 

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Congress Lifts Long-Standing Ban on Pell Grants to People in Prison
PBS Newshour | Dec. 29, 2020

Prisoners to Get 'Second Chance Pell'
Inside Higher Ed | June 24, 2016

Aim Higher Act

Congress Close on Simplifying FAFSA
Inside Higher Ed | Dec. 7, 2020

FAFSA Simplification Act Summary of Provisions
Association of Public and Land-grant Universities

Doubling the Pell Grant to Promote Access to Opportunity, Higher Ed
Diverse: Issues in Higher Education | Dec. 15, 2020

Experts Weigh in on Biden’s Support of $10,000 in Student Debt Forgiveness
CNBC | January 22, 2021

Remember the Dreamers

Top Higher Education Post
Inside Higher Ed | Feb. 22, 2021

Hosts and Guests

 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. We're going to be joined later in our program by Bobby Scott. He's the Chairman of the Education Labor Committee in the United States House of Representatives and a person with a lot to say about higher education policy, federal policy and certainly the emergency support for institutions and students that's moving through Congress right now. But before we get to that, I am joined as always by my excellent cohosts, Sarah Spreitzer and Mushtaq Gunja. Hello guys.

Sarah Spreitzer: Hey Jon.

Mushtaq Gunja: Hey, Sarah. Hey, Jon.

Jon Fansmith: And I think we are very excited about our guests today. But before we get to Chairman Scott, there's a lot going on here in Washington too. And I think probably one of the biggest headline thing, Sarah, is certainly a lot of action on immigration and you being ACE's expert on that, I'm completely discounting Stephen Bloom's contributions right here.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, I don't know if I'd say expert, but yes.

Jon Fansmith: I'm not sure he listens. So-

Sarah Spreitzer: I'm at least the person who's-

Jon Fansmith: Feel free to pile on.

Sarah Spreitzer: I'm at least the person who's read probably most of the 400 pages of the new US Citizenship Act, which got dropped last week. It was introduced by Senator Menendez from New Jersey and Congresswoman Sanchez from California. And this is the long awaited comprehensive immigration bill that President Biden had promised on January 20th that he was going to send up to the Hill. It covers a lot of different things. But for our world, for higher education, there's a lot of good things in there, including making the DREAM Act permanent, providing a path to citizenship for our Dreamers. Also allowing for dual intent for international students applying for visas, which we've talked about before. And a new program that would allow green cards for international students who are graduating with STEM PhDs. So a lot of good things in there. The problem is there's already been some pushback about moving it as a comprehensive immigration bill. And so-

Jon Fansmith: Let's get some my usual jokes, Sarah, that I asked you for the outcome, when they're going to pass comprehensive immigration and will it beat my bills. So this one's got a good shot at winning?

Sarah Spreitzer: Well, it just means that we're going to have a lot to work on I think throughout the year because they are likely going to be doing it in piecemeal bills. And so we know in the Senate for example they've already reintroduced the DREAM Act, which Senator Durbin has reintroduced every Congress since 2001. And we just sent a letter up to the Hill endorsing the DREAM Act. I think it was with 53 other organizations and urging the Senate to pass it quickly. And that's for us a big priority this year. We're waiting to see a court case come out of Texas, which is going to determine whether or not the program is constitutional and we're a little worried about the outcome of that. And if that happens, Congress is going to have to act quickly to provide protections for our Dreamers.

Mushtaq Gunja: It's been a good idea every year since 2001.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah.

Mushtaq Gunja: And yeah, I mean, I hope that it gets done. And if I'm curious what's going to happen with that Texas court case. And if the Supreme Court ends up taking it up, this might put some pressure on Congress to actually move. I think they've in some ways gotten built up by the courts.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah. Yeah, I would agree and I would be remiss if I didn't mention our rememberthedreamers.org website, which has a lot of advocacy materials, it'll have a copy of the letter that we just sent up to the Senate and it has our contact Congress option for folks that may want to contact their senators or congressional representatives about support for the bill.

Jon Fansmith: And we'll have a link to that on the podcast website. But Mushtaq, I think the other big news in our world in the last few days was some announcements around staffing at the Department of Education, your old stomping grounds. So I thought if I'd asked you a little bit about what we know about who might be coming to the department, where that stands.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, so the president this past week, I guess, late last week announced the intention to nominate James Kvaal to be the undersecretary. Just in my mind just a fantastic appointment. I got to work with James when I was at the department, he was at the White House. He was in charge of an incredibly huge portfolio that included higher education at the White House, the DPC, the Domestic Policy Council. And he was just such a good partner. He's going to be so good to our institutions. I think he really understands where they're coming from. He's the President of TICAS right now and has college students really at his heart. I think he understands the access and affordability questions just as well as basically anybody in the country. I just think this is a fantastic appointment. This relationship with the department I think is only going to continue to grow. Last week, ACE and several other higher ed associations met with Michelle Cooper at the department about priorities for the upcoming administration, both the associations priorities. And we heard a little bit about where... Yeah, so post-secondary education is coming from what they're thinking. So really, really excited about getting to work with this department.

Jon Fansmith: And there's-

Sarah Spreitzer: There's-

Jon Fansmith: Oh, sorry, Sarah, go ahead.

Sarah Spreitzer: Sorry, I was just going to say, it's exciting to see them starting to staff up, even though we don't have the secretary of education actually confirmed. It's just nice to have people on the higher ed side.

Mushtaq Gunja: So Jon, what is the latest on reconciliation? Where is this COVID Act? Where are we now?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, in a lot of ways, we're in the same place we were over the last few weeks. The bill is working its way through the House. It hit a big milestone yesterday where the entire bill was assembled for the first time rather than the different pieces different committees had worked on and it passed the budget committee. So really a few procedural steps. But then the next big thing is a vote on the House floor to move it on to the Senate. And that should be taking place as we record this coming Friday or Saturday depending on some issues they have to work out about language and the administration of the bill. But hopefully to the Senate as early as next week for a vote.

Mushtaq Gunja: And Jon, it feels to me like this is going to pass the House. I think we know that.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah.

Mushtaq Gunja: The Senate feels a little bit more complicated potentially. I mean, some of that seems to me to be a little bit of fighting, maybe too strong word, but a little bit of consternation around the minimum wage portions of this bill, right?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah.

Mushtaq Gunja: Which seemed to me to have two potential problems. One is the parliamentarian question about whether this can fit in a reconciliation bill. And then the second is whether the Senate Democrat moderates, especially Joe Manchin wants some $15 federal minimum wage. It sounds like he doesn't or want something a little bit smaller or something indexed for West Virginia. What does that do for the prospects of this bill in your opinion?

Jon Fansmith: So it's an interesting question. I think first and foremost, this bill will pass the House and it will pass the Senate and it will become law. There's I think a very remote chance that we will not have a big reconciliation bill. It's simply too important to the administration, it's too important to Democratic leadership. And for the overall approach, they have Biden across their caucus. So some version of this bill will pass the Senate. But I think you've hit on what are really the biggest issue with this bill moving from the House where $15 minimum wage was included. There was opposition by Republicans, but within the Democratic Party, pretty uniform support. The Senate is a whole different place. And they talk about the fact that Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, these senators are disproportionately influential now because with only 50 votes, you can't afford to lose one. And so you have a real responsibility to make sure everyone on your caucus is on board and both senators, Sinema and Manchin have said, nah, they don't like a $15 minimum wage. They might like a smaller minimum wage increase. They might like a one that's phased in over a longer window. But they don't like the proposal. Before you get into any of the procedural issues in the Senate, which are not insignificant, I mean, they're meaningful in the reconciliation process, that lack of support really dooms that provision. Now do they find middle ground? Do they do something on the minimum wage?

There was a bipartisan proposal floated as we record this that would've paired some provisions around a minimum wage increase to less than $15 with some issues around vetting the citizenship status of employees. That might be something that could get Republican support. That might be something that could move, stand alone. It might be fodder for seeing a reduction in minimum wage in the Senate. But that really is... You're talking about $1.9 trillion package that does an enormous number of things, most especially around coronavirus testing, vaccinations, care and really the entire conversation in DC right now is $15 minimum wage. So it's the area of most opposition, it's area most targeted, its area of most that attention is paid to and frankly, zero most likely to change before the bill goes forward. So that's kind of where we sit.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, it's funny how have these things sort of happen. I mean that, I agree, we're spending a lot of time talking about minimum wage right now. The other thing that's sort of interesting about this is the bill when pulled is pretty popular among Democrats, among independents, even picks up a decent amount of Republican support among the voters, which puts Republicans in sort of an interesting place. I mean, Jon, you said that the Dems can't afford to lose even a single Democratic vote, almost certainly true. But I wonder if ultimately this is going to end up being a 50/50 vote or whether Democrats could pick up some Republican support here in the Senate. It'll be interesting if Republicans end up not supporting or at least Republican moderates end up not supporting a bill that is widely popular among the American people.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and I think one of the things that's a real... It's sort of hard to already be thinking about the next election since the last one was so recently passed. But if you are talking about the Senate, the next election Republicans, again, it's a 50/50 split. It doesn't take a whole lot to return to the majority. And they are competing in a lot of states that have moved either purple or that were blue in the last cycle. You saw it with the vote for impeachment. Seven Republicans crossed the line to vote with Democrats towards impeachment of the president. A lot of that it's easy to be the seventh vote when you need 10. There's no consequences. You're not flipping it. On something like reconciliation as you pointed out, it's popular. A lot of people want the support. They want the things that the bill includes, setting aside the minimum wage and debate over that. It becomes a whole lot easier to join when it's reconciliation. The Democrats will pass it regardless of what you do. So you might as well get the benefit of having voted for it. And I think you probably will see at least some Republican senators voting in support.

Sarah Spreitzer: Well, on the $40 billion for higher ed is pretty well just baked. And so I feel like our advocates are already turning their attention to the next reconciliation bill, whether or not it runs into problems with the Senate. Maybe I'm being naive, but I feel like we know that that $40 billion is in there for our institutions and our students and now folks are already starting to think what's going to be in the next reconciliation.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and I think that's a great question to ask the chairman who might have some insights into that when we bring him on. One of the other things I know we're going to ask him about is they recently passed in December a bill that restored Pell eligibility for incarcerated individuals. And Mushtaq, you were at the department when the experimental sites program around that took place, was started up and now curious just before we talk to the chairman if you had any thoughts to offer along about that program and about this recent change in law.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, I mean, I think it's just such a great accomplishment. I'll tell you when we worked on the Pell for prisoners experimental site, I think that's what we call them. Maybe we call it a Second Chance Pell too.

Jon Fansmith: Second Chance I think, yeah.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, at least internally I know that for a while, we were talking about it as Pell for prisoners. I think Second Chance Pell probably is a better name. I don't think that we thought that we would be sitting here in 2021 with Pell for incarcerated individuals being enacted in law. I mean, this is an enormously change. I think it's really to the good. I mean, I was able to go visit a couple of prison education programs in 2015, 2016. I mean, these things are amazing. I mean, the quality of education is high. The impact on prisoners while they're in prison is really good. And then of course, they... And they come out with a set of skills and ready to be employed on the backend. I mean, this is just great policy. But I got to say, I mean, although it seems sort of clear at least to me and I know to ACE that this was a good thing, a smart public policy move, man, it didn't look like it was going to be possible five years from now, five years ago. And I guess, it gives me a little bit of hope on the DREAM Act stuff that you guys have been joking about a little bit. Not that the DREAM Act is a joke, but the possibilities for passage, you never know, at some point people might just come to their senses and do the right thing. They did it for Second Chance Pell. Maybe it's going to happen on the DREAM Act too.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, and DREAM Act has always had bipartisan support. And in fact, in a House hearing, I think it was last week where they talked about the need for immigration reform. The ranking member spent a lot of time talking about the fact that he thought the passage of the DREAM Act was possible this year. So fingers crossed.

Jon Fansmith: Fingers cross indeed. Well, we are going to be right back with Chairman Bobby Scott to talk about some of these issues and a whole lot more. So stay tuned with us after the break. And welcome back. Sarah, I'm going to turn it to you to introduce our very special guest today.

Sarah Spreitzer: Thanks, Jon. We are so lucky to be joined today by Congressman Bobby Scott from Virginia. Congressman Scott is the Chairman of Education and Labor Committee in the US House of Representatives, a committee many of us are familiar with because it oversees higher education policy and the authorization of many of the programs at the Department of Education as well as the Department of Labor, but that's for a different podcast. As a short introduction, Chairman Scott represents the third congressional district in the Commonwealth of Virginia, which includes many institutions of higher education including Old Dominion University, Paul D. Camp Community College, Hampton University and Norfolk State University. Before coming to Congress, he served in the Virginia House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate. He has the distinction of being the first African-American elected to Congress from Virginia since reconstruction and only the second African-American elected to Congress from Virginia. He served as the ranking member on Education and Labor from 2015 until 2018 when he became chairman. He's been a long-time supporter of criminal justice reform, a supporter of US military service members and veterans and a great advocate for higher education. And because this is a higher ed podcast, we have to report that Chairman Scott is a proud graduate of Harvard College and Boston College Law School. Chairman Scott, thank you for being here.

Chairman Bobby Scott: Good to be here. Thank you.

Sarah Spreitzer: So we have a lot to talk about what the committee is working on and what you plan to work on during the 117th Congress. But I wanted to start by looking back a bit at some of your accomplishments over the last few years. We saw the FUTURE Act passed early last year, which provided sustained funding for minority-serving institutions including HBCUs. We also saw Congress lift the ban on federal student aid for incarcerated individuals and expand Second Chance Pell Grants. And we also saw the long awaited FAFSA simplification legislation. These were all big accomplishments and they passed with bipartisan support. Can you talk about which was the most difficult and which was the easiest piece of legislation to pass?

Chairman Bobby Scott: Well, you started talking about the past. I'd like to start even further back than that just to show what we're aiming at. I'm trying to get, as I said, back to the future. The past was after the Higher Education Act was passed and a few years, it got to the point where the Pell Grant covered 75 to 80% of the cost of going to college. The colleges of state, state colleges, states were paying about 2/3 of the cost of state colleges. And so you would hear about people working their way through college. They'd get a summer job and a 15 hour week job and they could make up the little difference and come out without any debt. Now instead of 75 to 80%, Pell Grant only covers about 30% of the cost of education. Instead of 2/3, the state is only paying about 1/3. In many cases, less of the cost of going to college and the difference is on the student. Most students don't have the wherewithal and end up having to borrow. And that's where the student loan crisis has come because the Pell Grant hadn't kept up with the cost of tuition, room and board and the states have essentially disinvested from higher education. And so our challenge has been to try to get back to the point where the Pell Grant covers a substantially higher portion of the cost to reduce the need for student loans and then to make student loans cheaper to take out and easier to pay off. We also want to make sure the states step up and pay their fair share of the cost of going to college as they had in the past.

It's interesting that the total student loan debt is about $1.5 trillion. And a couple of years ago, the Congress passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut. 80% of the benefits went to the top, 1% in corporations. And so you can see what choices we've been making and those are the wrong choices. We've got to get back to where those of us who benefited from the Pell Grants and low cost student loans and state investments. Even if you didn't go to a state college, there's a limit to what a private college can charge over the state colleges. And it gets downward pressure. And so well, we need to get back to those days. And that's why the action we took in the last December was so important. It was a major step in that direction. You mentioned the simplification of the FAFSA form. But not only simplified it, but by the time when the dust settles, a lot more people are eligible for maximum Pell and a lot more people are eligible for some Pell Grant assistance. We need to do it. That's kind of a backdoor way of increasing the Pell Grant. I mean, we need to significantly increase the Pell Grant. To get to where we were, we'd have to increase it in the order of magnitude of doubling the present Pell Grant to get anywhere close to the 70, 80% of the cost of going to college. But student loans are an impossible burden. You can't expect people to want to go to college when they have to take out debt, which rivals their mortgage and with repayment schedules that have them still paying off the loan while their peers that didn't take out student loans could buy a house and pay off their mortgage by the time they can pay off their student debt. That's not fair. We're in a democracy where people ought to be able to move ahead based on their ability. And this is a major problem in our democracy. And so what we did last December was to take a major step in increasing the Pell Grant and expanding it. And we're going to be making... And what's on the table now of course is continuing that progress.

Sarah Spreitzer: One of the other accomplishments last year was the expansion of the Second Chance Pell Grant which expanded eligibility to incarcerated individuals. And that was also passed with bipartisan support. So these are really great accomplishments and I think are going to build on the needs that you just talked about.

Chairman Bobby Scott: I think there's a growing acceptance of the fact that we have to use evidence and research rather than slogans and soundbites in criminal justice policy. For decades starting with the so-called war on drugs, the criminal justice policy was based on full tested slogans and soundbites, not on anything that had to do with criminal justice policy effectiveness or cost, particularly cost-effectiveness. Whoever could come up with the good, poll tested soundbite, that would carry the day. 1994, we were told that three strikes and you're out was the number one best vote getting soundbite of that election cycle. Could beat anything you could say about social security, healthcare, the environment, three strikes, you're out, life without parole. It did nothing, zero to reduce crime because by the time someone is on the third strike in some incarcerated and gets out after a third strike. And recognizing that age of release is more of a factor of recidivism than length of sentence. By the time you've gotten out after you'd been in and out, in and out and in on the third strike and then out, you're at an age where crime is not a major factor. I asked one person, how many people had gotten out after a third strike sentence, got out and committed a fourth offense? That would suggest that the third strike penalty wasn't long enough. They said they didn't know, but they would get back to me. That was 1994. I'm still waiting. They haven't found one. So we spend all that money incarcerating geriatric patients and doing nothing about crime in the street. But that's the way it was. And regrettably, Pell Grants for prisoners was a victim of that process.

All the evidence says that the prisoners to take advantage of Pell Grants and get a college education are so much less likely to come back to prison. That just save more and reduce prison cost, future prison costs than you spent on the Pell Grant. You also reduce the problems in prison. I mean, it's a great benefit to everybody, particularly people who will not be victims because the person isn't going to commit another crime and the taxpayer doesn't have to pay. So regrettably, the slogan of, "my child can't get a Pell Grant, the prisoner shouldn't get a Pell Grant." Boom, the amendment passed two to one. I think people are starting to recognize that just affording the foolishness has become too expensive. We can't afford all these slogans and soundbites. The cost of a simple-minded criminal justice policy has gotten to the point where nobody wants to pay the bill anymore, particularly when there are intelligent alternatives. And so, when the offer was made, we found that very few people wanted to step up and be the greatest fool on the issue and oppose Pell Grants for prisoners when it would reduce crime and save money. And so we put it in there and it's survived. So I think that there is a different attitude. But I mean, the idea the people you have someone in prison for eight, 10 years and they come out as dumb, as untrained as they went in. And that's an indictment not on the inmate, that's an indictment on the system. And they come out after eight or 10 years, how did they not have a college education and how are they no more able to become self-sufficient than they went in? We should do better than that. And Pell Grants for prisoners will be a major step in the right direction.

Sarah Spreitzer: And I know you talked a bit about all of the existing issues for higher education. And now we're going to turn to some of the present day issues that our institutions and students are dealing with COVID.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and thanks Sarah too. And Chairman Scott just said institutions have always opposed that elimination of eligibility of Pell for incarcerated individuals and the stories you would hear from institutions about the students they were serving in facilities and the outcomes and how just meaningful and important that was, I think we all are very, very grateful to you for seeing this through. And you made it sound very easy. I don't know. Is it outsider or to that process that it seemed like it was all so easy from the outside? So I want to give you all due credit for that.

Chairman Bobby Scott: Well, the question is you really have to push the question of the choice you make in criminal justice policy. Are we choosing to follow slogans and soundbites or are we following evidence and research? Once you make that decision, the rest is easy. Pell Grants for prisoners is easy. The evidence is all on one side. Slogans and soundbites used to be on one side. Now you're subject to being criticized for opposing it because you're increasing crime and wasting money. And-

Jon Fansmith: I like the afford... We can't afford the foolishness anymore is such a great line to describe that situation.

Chairman Bobby Scott: Well, and people on the prevention side are beginning to be less defensive about it. It used to be, well, I know we got to be tough on crime, but we ought to invest in some prevention. I mean, you just wait for the 30-second commercial is on the way. I've told people, if you're going to be on the prevention side, you have to be aggressive, you have to be offensive and you have to criticize your opponent for being on the side of increasing crime and wasting money. And I'm on the side of reducing crime and saving money. Now it's time to vote.

Jon Fansmith: It's a good argument. And speaking of time to vote, we are in the House of a very important vote coming up, which would be on the reconciliation package that has now cleared the budget committee as of yesterday. And that your committee had a huge hand in. And particularly from the higher education perspective, a few really important points, especially and I'll start by thanking you for the inclusion of nearly $40 billion for higher education students and institutions. I mentioned hearing those stories from our campuses as you can imagine. I know you're hearing the same stories how desperate some cases students situations are and challenges facing schools. So this is incredibly helpful if we get that in there and we appreciative for you for shepherding it through.

Chairman Bobby Scott: People forget that when students are in college on a meal plan, they expect the room and board for the next several months to be covered. When this college campus closes, all of a sudden they have no shelter and no access to food. Well, that's quite a different situation. And that's why we have a significant portion of the funds allocated to our colleges going to student support because food insecurity was a problem for students who may not have been on a meal plan. They can cover tuition, room and board and they're broke. Well, how do they get this afternoon's meal? And so supporting the students is a major part of that. And if they're not on campus on a meal plan, then if they're going to be anywhere, if they're going to be on a remote college education, they have to have some kind of support for room and board.

Jon Fansmith: And there were some other provisions in there that they mirrored what was in the earlier relief bills, but particularly the support for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. Obviously, you have spoken about this many times that there are historic inequities and how those institutions are funded. Just give you the opportunity to talk a little bit about why it's such a priority to include that specialized funding in the reconciliation bill.

Chairman Bobby Scott: Well, there are two different categories. One is minority-serving institutions and the other is historically black colleges and universities. The definition of an HBCU is a college that was in existence before 1965 and suffered because of state sanctioned segregation. Many of them are state colleges, which just received notoriously lower funding than the predominantly white colleges and over decades. Sometimes almost a century. Other colleges had to suffer through the problems of segregation and these colleges have needs that are along the lines of science buildings, dormitories, cafeterias, massive infrastructure, where $25 million would be a drop in the bucket. The minority-serving institutions, the money goes to student services. They didn't suffer the capital problems. They may have the capital problems, but not legally sanctioned. Many are major state colleges that are serving a lot of minority students. And they need student support services to help with graduation, help with social services to make sure that once they get on campus, they can complete their course. One of the major challenges we have now is when people sign up for college, if they don't graduate, they end up with the student loans and no credentials.

We need to make sure that if they sign up for a course that they actually complete it. And the funds for student services under the minority-serving institutions go a long way in that. And the $1 million for college should be a huge investment because you could set up a student support center and things like that with that kind of money. So I mean, the needs are in different categories and that's why the HBCUs are in a category by themselves and other colleges, including phenomenally black institutions, which are not HBCUs are funded as a minority-serving institution. And we put money in there so that the students who are having even more challenges because of the pandemic can get the services that they need to complete their course.

Jon Fansmith: And I think we are all hopeful that one that will clear the House certainly the end of this week or this weekend and move rapidly through the Senate. I think that as we look towards the future, Mushtaq has some thoughts about the priorities you may have and objectives in the coming year. Mushtaq, I'll turn it to you.

Mushtaq Gunja: Sure. Yeah, Representative Scott, I mean, I'd love to hear a little bit about after we get past this sort of set of funding, this vote on the coronavirus relief bill, what's next for the rest of this term and for the rest of this sort of four years of the first, hopefully the first Biden administration? What's on your radar? I mean, I can imagine, we spent a little bit of time talking about the Pell Grant program. What are the prospects of doubling Pell Grant? I'd love to hear a little bit about student loans and where you think loan forgiveness might be going.

Chairman Bobby Scott: Well, first of all, our focus is going to be an access to make sure people can afford to go to college. I think the loan forgiveness discussion is important because it shows the level of support that we may be giving higher education. The question is whether or not it all ought to go to loan forgiveness because that doesn't do much for students who are signing up for college in September. You could... The loan forgiveness programs around the 600, well, depending on how much you forgive, 125 to 250, maybe 600, maybe 600 billion, maybe a trillion, doubling the Pell Grant would be somewhere in that half trillion dollar range for 10 years. So I think in the numbers we're talking, doubling of Pell Grant is certainly a possibility. But there are a lot of things that go to affordability. One, why are we charging interest on student loans? People are saying, I make all these payments and I'm not even keeping up with interest. Why are we charging interest? If you're on income-based repayment, why aren't all of your payments going towards principal and nothing towards interest? Eliminating interest wouldn't cost that much. And that would eliminate that and solve a significant increase in Pell. If you do take out a student loan, the income-based payments, we make people pay 20 to 25 years. Why do they have to pay that long? I mean, 10, 15 would be more than enough of your income to pay back borrower's defense for those colleges that have ripped you off, why do you have to pay off your student loan at all?

We need to tighten up those programs. Public service loan forgiveness, if you work in a public service job for so many years. And all of those programs can be improved. So access to college, making student loans easier to take out and easier to pay off will be part of the challenge. Working with accreditors to make sure that the colleges are doing their jobs. Some colleges have miserable graduation rates. And I think... And some... I've asked the accreditors to at least take a passing glance of what some of these colleges are charging to what the students are getting. They say, we're not... Describe what we look at. Well, you ought to look at them. You're charging... I was visiting one school where they said the tuition for an 18 month program for culinary school. I'm not sure what kind of job you get. What kind of jobs these people are getting. Maybe something in McDonald's, maybe in a sit-down restaurant. But the 18 month program, the tuition was $50,000. Are you kidding me? I mean, how did they get accredited with that kind of tuition? Tightened it up when the... I think we're going to close the 90/10 loophole so that... And we don't want to open up new loopholes, but we want to make sure that the for-profit colleges are doing a good job and the accreditors need to do a better job and they're making sure that's possible. But I think the affordability has got to be the focus. One, we mentioned discharge. The president is indicating a willingness to discharge $10,000 that would frankly eliminate a substantial portion of the borrowers because a substantial number of them are those with very low debt, many of them with no credentials and having trouble paying them off, that would be a great benefit.

We're finding that those with six-figure debt are not the ones defaulting because they have six-figure education and presumably six-figure education level jobs and they're able to pay it off. But still that is a real drag on their economic situation. That's where the public service loan forgiveness and the income-based and other programs can come in to help them. But if you're going to talk more than the $10,000, I think we need to get into a discussion about if you're going to spend that kind of money, let's put everything on the table including programs for people not going to two- and four-year programs, some short-term Pell for example where people can take a six-to-16-week program and significantly increase their income. Since the programs do not lead to a college degree, you can't use a Pell Grant because all it leads to is a good job. Well, if it in fact leads to a good job, you ought to be able to use the Pell Grant. If people can't afford 1,000, using the statistics, they have tremor can't have it, the person can't come up with $400 in an emergency. So if a tuition is 1,000 or $2,000 and they're going to significantly increase your income, you ought to be able to use a Pell Grant.

Mushtaq Gunja: Chairman Scott, how do you think about sort of safeguards around the short-term Pell program? Because I agree with you.

Chairman Bobby Scott: Yeah, that's for quality programs. One is to significantly limit it to either community colleges or possibly the... We owe our board referrals where the Workforce Opportunity Investment Act, workforce investment boards programs, the job training programs actually refer you to a program and hopefully we can count on them, not referring you to something that's overpriced and underperforming and have that as the local check. The accreditors I think have not done enough of a job that we could trust them just accreditation to be a sufficient guardrail. But you're exactly right. That's what we were looking at to make sure that the money doesn't get all messed up. But the short-term Pell is apprenticeship opportunities. The House has passed an apprenticeship bill where if you're talking in terms of trillions, I mean, you're rounding off to zero. I mean, these things don't cost anything.

Mushtaq Gunja: Right.

Chairman Bobby Scott: And you can do a lot for those in addition to those that are going to college, those that might want a better training for a better blue collar job, those opportunities that should not be ignored. So once you get past 10,000, I would hope that the discussion would be on, well, with this money on the table, what's the best we can do for young people post high school?

Mushtaq Gunja: And ACE has done quite a bit of research that backs up I think your findings as well, which is that more than 1/2 of defaulters have loan balances that are under $10,000. So being able to sort of wipe that debt off, helping the folks that need it the most, potentially your parents and credit scores could do a world of good at a price tag that's potentially not that trillion dollar number. Can I ask you a question Chairman Scott? So these sort of bills that you've been talking about apprenticeships and the rest, they could theoretically all get packaged or some of them could get packaged in a new Higher Education Act within... It's been quite a bit of time since we've had an HEA and it's up for reauthorization. What are the prospects in the coming Congress for that?

Chairman Bobby Scott: I think on the apprenticeship bill, that's a freestanding bill. It's already passed the House. The other... And again, job training opportunities should be part of the next transportation infrastructure bill. And we didn't have a post-secondary job training in the COVID relief package, notwithstanding the fact that estimates are about 7 million people have lost their jobs, have lost jobs, they will not be coming back. These are people that had been working and no longer working and will be looking for work. And if they're going to get jobs comparable to what they had, they'll obviously need to be some job training involved. Those opportunities and investments will be a part of the infrastructure bill. I would've liked to have been in this bill, but the commitment has been that it will be the infrastructure bill.

A comprehensive Higher Education Act. I think we did a lot of what we wanted to do last December. And so some of the rest is just straight funding. The level of Pell Grant is not a complicated issue, just how much money do you have and how much can you increase it. And so I think we'll be doing more targeted legislation as we go forward. There is one other issue we haven't mentioned and that is trying to get colleges to increase their endowments. A lot of colleges were able to weather the storm through the pandemic as they have huge endowments. Others without that resource are in severe financial difficulty. And we need to... If we're going to have stable higher education, these colleges have got to beef up their endowments so that they can weather pandemics or whatever temporary speed bumps may occur. And also gives them the ability to predict and foresee... To predict their needs and stable. You already have endowed chairs; you've got these professors will be there even though you've got the ups and downs. During the pandemic, I was surprised that the enrollment in some colleges did not collapse. A lot of colleges maintain their enrollment or within a couple of percentage points of what they had. Things like this could result in reductions in enrollment in the 50 to 75% range. And if you don't have a huge endowment, you're not going to survive. Your capital costs, your infrastructure costs, trying to maintain a faculty, go on. And if you don't have the student enrollment in your dormitories, the bank expects your bond payment to be made, whether the students are in there paying their board or not. They expected to get paid. And so the endowment's concern may help get you through. That's something that we need to encourage and incentivize.

Jon Fansmith: I think that's a great point. And you've obviously been very generous with your time. I want to just follow up on one very sort of quick point because we talked about declining enrollments. Those have been predominantly among low-income students, first-generation students, the students who need the most help, the affordability aspect, increasing Pell, we've talked about that as a priority. And you also talked about this second reconciliation bill that we'll focus more on. Infrastructure and some other things. But has been talked about it as an opportunity to maybe address some of these affordability issues. Is that... Just getting a sense from you. I know that's sort of down the road a little bit. But do you have a sense whether that might be a venue for addressing things like Pell Grant increases or other areas of support for affordability?

Chairman Bobby Scott: Well, I don't think we have to look. I don't think we need a specific vehicle for it. It's something we need to do. And as we consider higher education, the elimination of interest on the debt is one. Increasing Pell and making sure the discharge programs, student loan, public service loan forgiveness, income-based payments, borrowers defense, make sure that those are working. They've been severe problems with those programs. And make sure that they're alive and well so that a student going to college does not have to feel that they are indebting themselves to the point where they won't be able to get married, have a family, buy a house, save for retirement because they're saddled with this huge student debt. College ought to be... And many people have such debt and they're making payments that if they were going into a mutual fund would make them millionaires by the time they're in their 50s and 60s rather than phew, I've finally paid off my student debt. That's not fair.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. Well, Chairman Scott, I want to... I noticed we are running both longer than we usually do and certainly, longer than I think you felt you had free to speak with us. I want to thank you so much for being incredibly generous with your time and your thoughts and more importantly, thank you so much for being a continued and strong voice for students and institutions in Congress. So thank you so much for joining us today.

Chairman Bobby Scott: Thank you.

Jon Fansmith: To listen to earlier episodes, subscribe to dotEDU. You can find us on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Google Podcast and wherever you get your podcasts. For show notes and links to resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at acenet.edu/podcast. And you can also use our email, podcast@acenet.edu for suggestions, for upcoming shows or guests you'd like to see or just thoughts on how we're doing. Before we go, I'd like to thank Carly O'Connell, Laurie Arnston, Audrey Hamilton and Malcolm Moore for the exceptional producers of dotEDU and make us sound as good as we do every episode. And finally, I'd like to thank you for listening.

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​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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