My Conversation with Congressman John Tierney

Posted on April 25, 2012 by Under Secretary Martha Kanter

Most people agree there is a lamentable lack of constructive, civil discourse in Washington, D.C. these days. So you can imagine how delighted I was to be interviewed early last month by Congressman John Tierney, (6th CD, MA), as his guest on the latest installment of “Conversations with Congressman Tierney.”  Congressman Tierney is the only New England member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which makes him a vital link between hundreds of colleges and thousands of students and the U.S. Department of Education.   In our interview, Congressman Tierney asked me to review our Department’s progress in implementing the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), which he co-authored in 2009 and which was incorporated into the Healthcare and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 which President Obama signed into law on March 30, 2010.

“We were working on that issue all the way back during the Clinton administration,” Congressman Tierney noted, as he recalled his longstanding efforts to eliminate subsidies to lenders providing student loans. Congressman Tierney also mentioned the savings from passing SAFRA, which paid back a chunk of the debt, and also increase Pell grants.

I told Congressman Tierney that an estimated $40 billion of those savings were devoted to fund Pell grants for low-income students.  But I wanted to go a step further. I wanted to make sure he understood what his efforts meant in real terms to students and families in his own neighborhood, back in his home district. So I looked it up. It turns out that last year approximately 12,000 students in Congressman’s Tierney’s Congressional District received a combined total of about $43 million dollars in Federal Pell Grants, a program that received much needed support in return for the reforms of the student loan industry.  All told, since the President took office, Congress has increased the annual maximum Pell Grant award by $800, to $5550 for the neediest students, while also increasing the number of Pell recipients from 6.2 million to more than 9.6 million students enrolled in our nation’s colleges and universities today.

Congressman Tierney also asked me to review our progress on the financial transparency provisions included in the bill. “We thought transparency was necessary,” he noted, “families and students need to see the information before they make their choices.”  That goal, like the student loan reforms, is also reflected in our new way of doing business at the U.S. Department of Education, which now features a growing variety of consumer-information designed to help students and families make the choices that are best for them.

These free online resources, which Congressman Tierney highlights on his own web page, include:

The Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center, which contains comparative information on college tuition and net prices and The College Navigator, which helps students find degree and certificate programs that meet their needs and file a free application for federal financial aid.

I really appreciated the many times Congressman Tierney let me remind his viewers that the Department of Education offers all this information free online. For example, no student who wants to apply for a federal grant or loan needs to pay a fee; and, you can easily apply for a federal grant or loan on our official U.S. Department of Education website. It’s a message I can’t do enough to get out: students do not have to pay anyone to apply for federal financial aid.  We want all students to seek federal, state and campus grants first; then work-study opportunities; and then, federal and state loans. Subsidized direct federal student loans currently carry interest charges of 3.4 percent, and while that may double on July 1, 2012 if Congress does not pass the President’s proposal to freeze that rate in order to help keep college affordable, even then federal loans will be a much better bargain than most private student loans or even credit cards, where the interest rate is much higher and there are far fewer and less generous repayment options.  The first step: file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Congressman Tierney also asked me to review the education and job training related proposals President Obama put forward in his budget proposal for next year – and that led to a lively discussion. I’ll get to that in another post next week.  But in the meantime, let me close with his words, spoken shortly after he remembered his own days as a work-study student at Salem State University.

“I know there are a lot of students who are working a lot of hours [in addition to their studies] but with the states cutting back funds for higher education they still wind up in lots of debt, ” he noted. “We still have a lot of work to do on that.”

Martha Kanter is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education

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