College Affordability Must Be Protected, Says Congressman

What’s your tax rate, U.S. Congressman John Tierney asked higher education employees at the NEA Higher Education Conference on Saturday. Is it a mere 2.4 percent – like the tech giant Google? Or is it zero — like Boeing or pharmaceutical king Pfizer?

Maybe you received an enormous refund like General Electric?

Probably not.

“We need a fair, progressive tax rate in this country where everybody pays their fair share,” said Tierney, a Democrat from Massachusetts. But we’re not getting it — instead, right-wing politicians are pushing for tax cuts for the very wealthiest, which would be financed through cuts in education at all levels.

Representative John Tierney speaks at the NEA Higher Education Conference. Credit: Sarah Nathan

“They’ve already started nibbling away at Pell Grants. They’ve already started to nibble away at regulation. Last week, they met in hearings to figure out how to help their friends in for-profit education… They’re more interested in making money for their pals than anything else.”

In the most recent federal budget, approved as a stop-gap measure earlier this month, more than 1.7 million students were stripped of Pell Grants, federal grants for the neediest college students. An additional seven million will have their grants reduced. This is not the kind of thing, Tierney pointed out, that helps America become stronger, better educated, and more competitive in the global market. It’s not the kind of thing that helps all kids to realize the American Dream.

Tierney, a recent winner of the New England Board of Higher Education Leadership and a member of the House Committee on Education and Workforce, was a driving force behind college affordability legislation signed into law in 2010. He spoke Saturday to an audience of higher education faculty, academic professionals, support employees and graduate assistants from across the country, all represented by NEA.

Tierney urged higher ed employees to make their case with their Representative or Senator — in person. “It makes a difference. More than writing an email or letter, it’s getting in there, getting an appointment and making them listen.”

These are critical times for all levels of education – from Head Start (which also was slashed by House Republicans earlier this month) to K-12 to community colleges and four-year universities, where partisan politicians don’t see students – “they see profit centers,” Tierney said.  But if politicans want to be serious about improving job opportunities and turning around the economy, they’ll invest more, not less.

“Community colleges do more for small-town America than any other single factor you can spend money on,” said NEA economist Richard Sims. “Their graduates become better workers, better earners and spenders, right where they are.”

Tierney said Saturday he’s proud to be a friend to NEA, to organized labor, to educators. “I’m proud to work with you on solving these problems,” he promised. But that kind of collaborative spirit is all too rare in politics today, especially as other politicians move to divest public money into private, corporate interests.

“We welcome strong allies like Congressman Tierney,” said Jim Rice, a Quigsigamond Community College professor and president of the National Council of Higher Education. “He understands that the work we do is helping families, helping the towns where we live and work, and helping this country to be competitive.”