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Remarks on the Launch of the New Deal for Higher Education Campaign

By Ayanna Pressley

Introduction by Irene Mulvey:

We are joined today by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. When the Congresswoman won her seat in Massachusetts’s Seventh District in 2018, she became the first woman of color ever elected to Congress from her state. Since then, she has been a strong voice for her constituents, and for all disenfranchised Americans.

Congresswoman Pressley helped lead the opposition to many of the former president’s damaging and divisive policies. She has worked tirelessly for criminal justice reform and immigration reform, advocating for women’s rights and protections for working families during the pandemic.

Last week, Congresswoman Pressley joined her congressional and senate colleagues in calling on President Joe Biden to use his authority under the Higher Education Act of 1965 to forgive $50,000 of student debt for every federal borrower.

She made it clear that the student debt crisis is both a racial and economic justice issue. She pointed out the debt forgiveness would not only provide much-needed relief to pandemic-weary families, but it could also help reduce the racial wealth gap that plagues our country and our communities. As someone born and raised in the Boston area, I am especially thrilled to introduce Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley:

Well, thanks Irene, for that introduction. Good afternoon to my AFT and AAUP family. I really do mean that. We are family because we certainly understand that the destiny of the individual, the family, and the community—the health of those three—are inextricably linked. I really do believe that we are a family.

It feels good to be with my family and virtual community to have a chance to discuss such a critically important issue: the future of our higher education system and the need to finally set the course for a New Deal for Higher Education. I want to thank everyone joining us as viewers for the continued work and education that you have all brought to your craft.

These times have not been easy. We find ourselves bearing the weight of three conflated crises. The faculty and graduate student employees who have had no choice, and because of a deeper and higher calling have been nimble during this pandemic, shifting coursework plans to online learning modules on the drop of a dime, lectures and study groups to Zoom calls; the counselors, the librarians, student affairs staff, and health-care workers, who have supported students facing record levels of trauma and uncertainty; the facilities, custodial, and food-service workers putting themselves in harm’s way to ensure our students and campus communities are safe in the midst of this ongoing pandemic: each of you have been essential in every sense or application of the word, and you have stepped up and you have stood in the gap time and time again, when our nation and communities have asked you to do so much more than you signed up for. I really just want you to know that I see you, and I appreciate you.

Although I know I have been invited here in my capacity as a congresswoman and as a lawmaker, because we are family, and are siblings in the work of education, equity, and justice, and so many other issues, I hope that what you really see me as foremost is your sister, as a sister in solidarity.

This pandemic has truly laid bare and exacerbated the most entrenched inequities and disparities, and our system of higher education has certainly not been immune to this. We have seen the public health and economic crises push families and students further to the brink of economic despair. For many people, their realization of just how many families are on the margin, they’re having an epiphany, this is new information for them. You have been on the front lines and you know just how many families have been on the margins and on the brink for a very long time. Record levels of student debt have forced families to have to choose between putting food on the table and paying a student loan bill.

As I said earlier today in an interview, student debt is certainly not a millennial and Gen Z issue exclusively. In Massachusetts, we have seen educators who have lost their licensure to teach because they have defaulted on student loans—what a very cruel irony and contradiction—loans that were incurred because of a desire, a compelling, a commitment to be a nation builder, which is what Barack Obama called our educators. I never had the opportunity to ask him what he meant, but I believe what he meant is that our educators pour into our children who then go on to build up our nation. Of course, during the pandemic, we saw under the prior administration wages and benefits that were being garnished to the tune of fifty-four thousand people, until Democrats intervened and lobbied hard, and we were able to get a pause on those payments.

I have seventy-plus-year-olds in my district who have shared that they are still paying a student loan debt—in fact, a seventy-six-year-old. There is the weight of so much bearing down on all of us, and students are facing record levels of food insecurity and homelessness, and so many of us are struggling under the weight of isolation and unprecedented mental health crises that have resulted from the layers of trauma that have unfolded over the last eleven months.

The pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the fact that we can and we must take bold action to address the inequities and disparities in our country. That begins by confronting unapologetically and with fierceness and urgency dismantling the generations of intentional policy violence which has created these inequities to begin with.

None of these inequities and disparities and racial injustices were naturally occurring, they didn’t just happen, they were codified in law, they were legalized, they were legislated. That is why I say that policy is my love language, because if we can legislate hurt and harm and inequity, then we can and we must be just as precise and prescriptive in reversing and mitigating the hurt by legislating equity, healing, and justice.

The decades of systemic racism and discriminatory policies like redlining and predatory lending that systemically denied Black and Latinx families the opportunity to build wealth, forcing our families to take on greater rates of student debt just for the chance at the same degree as our white counterparts and contributing to the $1.7 trillion student debt crisis that is disproportionately borne by Black and brown communities.

This is not abstract for me. I grew up in a single-parent household while my father, who has now gone on to do extraordinary things but was battling substance use disorder, was in and out of our criminal legal system. I was the first person in my immediate family to pursue higher education, and there wasn’t anyone to hold my hand or walk me through either the college application process or to fully explain what I was signing on to when I was signing all these documents just to make it possible for me to be able to pursue higher education. So, like 85 percent of Black students, I had to borrow, and like so many of those students, I also defaulted on those loans. We know that Black and brown students are five times more likely to default on those loans than our white counterparts.

The years of continued state disinvestment in our public colleges and universities, our HBCUs and MSIs that continue to be some of the strongest beacons of economic mobility for so many communities. The chronic underfunding of our Pell Grant and financial aid programs that have failed to keep up with the rising cost of tuition fees and living expenses. All policies, again, not naturally occurring, that have made higher education less accessible and more unequal for students, faculty, and staff alike.

In this moment of national reckoning—I grew up in the church and so when we throw that word around, I take it very seriously because a reckoning is something of epic proportion, it is quite literally biblical—this is not the time to moderate our aspirations or to play small, we have to go as big and as broad, as deep and systemic [as] the hurt has been.

Reverend Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign is someone who I look to as a North Star and an anchor, and he says this reckoning demands of us a reconstruction—a third reconstruction. So, each of us in this moment are being enlisted as community builders in that reconstruction. What we know we must not do is revert back to a status quo, insufficient, unjust normal. We cannot do that. This is the moment of reimagining, this is the moment of reconstruction, an opportunity and our responsibility to redesign systems and policies that truly center people—that center the dignity, the equity, and the justice of people and for people.

We truly need a New Deal for Higher Education, one that invests in public higher education as the public good that it is, one that invests and supports the higher education workforce, diversifies the pipeline of our future educators, resources, and faculty that will go on to shape the future leaders our nation so desperately needs.

This will take an all-hands-on-deck approach from policy makers at every level of government. My colleagues and I in Congress have the opportunity, and again the responsibility, to advance a COVID response package that will support our students, faculty, and college communities, and set the groundwork for a long-term recovery that will ensure that our higher education is the driver of economic mobility that truly leaves no community behind.

Unfortunately, our COVID response thus far has invested trillions that have mainly gone to support big industry at the expense of workers and communities. Enough. This is why we must work to ensure that any effort to really “build back better” includes massive investments in our public colleges, their workforce, and the supports that students need not only to access a higher education but to complete it and to thrive.

We cannot afford to tinker around the edges and make the same mistakes that we have made in the past. Look at the 2008 financial crisis, for example. When lawmakers bailed out Wall Street and abandoned our communities and public services, including public higher education, our public institutions had yet to recover from the cuts that resulted over the decades that followed, the jobs lost, and the talent turned away.

We can and we must be bold in our response. This means pushing the Biden administration to take bold executive action to cancel student loan debt. It means Congress finally authorizing a higher education act that will expand investments in Pell Grants and in campus childcare, transportation, and mental health support—[so] that our students have the resources necessary to cover the real costs and demands of college.

It also means centering the rights of workers and fair labor practices on college campuses and restoring maintenance of effort provisions, to ensure that states continue to invest in higher education as the economic engine that it is. It can and it must be done.

The cost of inaction is far too great. I am humbled to be with all of you today, my family, to sit at this virtual table with you. I am proud to be your partner and your accomplice in this fight and in good trouble. Thank you.

Watch a video recording of the campaign launch at https://newdealforhighered.org/news-and-updates/.

Ayanna Pressley represents the Seventh Congressional District of Massachusetts in the US House of Representatives.

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