Menendez Leads NJ College Affordability Forum

Menendez Leads NJ College Affordability Forum

Menendez Supports #InTheRed Act to Help Curb the Student Debt Crisis

CRANFORD, NJ – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, who helped draft and is an original co-sponsor of the In The Red Act, today led a forum at Union County College’s (UCC) Cranford Campus on the student debt crisis and the skyrocketing costs of higher education. He was joined by current and former New Jersey college students who are being crushed by college debt, and New Jersey college administrators who are working to increase access to higher education.

“The stories I heard in New Jersey today underscore the extent of our college debt crisis in this country, and show how the burden of student loans are weighing too heavily on far too many,” said Sen. Menendez. “We must act in Congress to ease this burden because an entire generation should not be stuck in the red; they should instead be innovating and contributing to our economy. Let’s support past, current and future students in American by piling on the tools they need to succeed, instead of piling on mountains of debt.”

UCC President Margaret M. McMenamin said she sees community colleges as playing a major role in helping reduce students’ debt.

“Students who want to receive a quality educational experience that’s also affordable need to look no further than their local community college,” she said. “Students who earn an associate degree at a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution for a bachelor’s degree can reduce their overall college expenses by as much as $100,000.”

The Senate’s In The Red Act is comprised of various college affordability solutions:

  • The America’s College Promise Act
    • Creates a grant program that provides a three-to-one federal-to-state match that waives community college tuition costs for eligible students.  Credits earned through the program would be fully transferable to four-year in-state institutions of higher learning.  Additionally, the bill creates a separate grant program that helps to cover two years of tuition for eligible students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and other minority serving institutions that have high enrollment rates of low-income students. 
  • The Pell Grant Cost of Tuition Adjustment Act
    • Sets the maximum Pell Grant award to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to keep pace with the rising cost of tuition. By permanently indexing Pell Grants to inflation, this bill ensures that Pell Grants remain a strong foundation on which students can build a college education.
  • The Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act
    • Allows students with outstanding public and private loans to refinance with the federal government at lower interest rates. Under this Act, millions could benefit from refinancing at today’s low interest rates, saving them hundreds and thousands of dollars over the life of their loans.

At the forum today, Sen. Menendez heard from UCC’s financial aid director, Dayne Chance, who described daily meetings with students who are struggling to pay for their tuition; Megan Namnama, a Montclair State University graduating senior from North Arlington and a member of the New Jersey Student Education Association, who is pursuing a career in dance education and is concerned if she’ll be able to pay off her student loans;  and UCC honors student Cassandra Wernock, who’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree, but attended the community college for the first two years to save money.

Rutgers-Camden Associate Chancellors Dr. Craig Westman and Mike Sepanic outlined the university’s need-based “Bridge the Gap” program that helps keep college affordable by cutting tuition in half or in full for high-achieving, low-income students.

Bergen County College Adjunct Professor Mecheline Farhat, a first-generation American who had joined Sen. Menendez at a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C., also shared her story of struggle with the New Jersey attendees, trying to raise her children and pay a mortgage with a combined $170,000 in student loan debt between her and her husband. 

The In The Red Act also contains an Accountability Resolution and funding offsets:

  • Accountability Resolution
    • A non-binding Resolution that calls for stronger policies to hold institutions of higher education more accountable for the cost and quality of a degree.
  • Funding Offsets
    • The Bill is paid for by closing tax loopholes for special interests, including the Senator’s Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act to end costly subsidies to Big Oil.

Last month, Farhat’s story inspired Sen. Menendez to collect stories from other New Jerseyans about college affordability, including adding his own. A page on his website is dedicated to this effort.

  • “[I] grew up the son of Cuban immigrants in a tenement building in Union City. His mother was a seamstress and spoke very little English.  (She used to make [me] read her [my] homework at night as a child to reinforce the importance of education even though she couldn’t understand it.)  The first in [my] family to go to college, [I] relied on education assistance programs to seek out the American Dream.  [I am] a product of New Jersey's public schools and a graduate of the state's universities. [I] first entered public service as a 19-year-old college student when [my] high school would not provide books to students who could not afford them. [I] launched a successful petition drive to reform the local school board and a year later won a seat on that very board.” – U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez
  • “I have been paying off my student debt since 1997 and I have not even made a dent in what I owe.  My wife, who also has student debt, is in more debt because she holds more degrees.  After we were married and combined our debt we began paying around $750 month to lenders....I am working as a public school teacher in an urban area and I need relief.  I feel my wife and I are being punished for achieving a higher education…” – Joseph Falcone, Westwood, Bergen County
  • “I have been teaching for 17 years and have not been able to make any payments towards my loans.  I have been deferring the payments hoping to get into a financial position where I could afford to start paying them back.  By doing this I have doubled the loan amount and I now owe $110,000.00 with a 7.5% interest rate….All these years I've had to live and put food on the table first to care for my three children and now to make ends meet.  We were also victims of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and have had to deal with significant financial burdens as a result.  I still cannot afford the payments and I am in danger of being placed in default.” – Marie Engle, Brick, Ocean County
  • “My daughter is a senior in high school.  She is smart talented and ready for college.  She has received scholarship money from all of the colleges that cover nearly half of the tuition…The amount we will have to pay is close to $128,000…Costs are out of control. Loans are not the answer.  Figure something out.  College needs to be affordable to middle class families like mine.” – Valerie Hecht, Oakhurst, Monmouth County 
  • “I am a high school teacher paying a PLUS loan that I took so my three children could attend college. The interest rate is twice that of my mortgage and the payments will last so long that retirement is pretty much out of the question.  Many of my age group are in the same situation.  Please consider us also.” – Steve Hopper, Sussex, Sussex County