Congressman George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said in a visit to Saint Mary’s College that urgent action is needed on the state and national level to curb the rising costs of higher education.
Miller pointed out that state financial support for public colleges and universities has plummeted from about 80 percent when he went to school in the 1960s to about 25 percent today.
“It’s a huge problem,” he told students in Professor Stephen Sloane’s class on Elections and Voting Behavior. Unfortunately, he added, with student fees spiraling out of control, “you end up putting more and more of the burden falls on the consumer - students and their families.”
Working to Keep College Affordable
Miller, who attended Saint Mary’s briefly before getting a B.A. from San Francisco State University and a law degree from UC Davis Law School, has been a passionate and hard-working advocate for affordable higher education throughout his 38-year career in Congress.
Among the recent bills he has championed and helped to pass are:
- The College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA), which provided the largest single increase in college aid since the GI bill after World War II. The law cut interest rates for Stafford Loans in half, increased Pell grants and instituted a student-loan forgiveness process for some public service employees.
- The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), which raised the Pell Grant scholarship to its highest level in history.
To address the problem of students who leave college saddled with debt, the CCRAA also includes an Income-Based Repayment Plan, under which graduates pay no more than 10 percent of their disposable income, and a Public Service Loan Forgiveness Plan, which discharges loans after 10 years for students who work in public service or nonprofit jobs. He also helped to pass legislation that built an inflation factor into Pell Grant awards, but the new Congress froze the payments at a maximum of $5,550.
Keeping college affordable is essential, Miller told the students, so “you can afford to follow your passion and your interest.”
With the cost of college escalating and job prospects for graduates stagnant since the recession, some higher education critics have begun to argue that a college degree isn’t worth the cost, but Miller dismissed the argument and passionately defended the value of higher education.
“You see these stupid questions on the front page of Newsweek: ‘Is it still worth it to go to college?’ You bet your ass it is, big time. If you think you’re going to live for any amount of time ... and you think you want to participate in the American system, it’s still a huge (income) premium,” he said.
Surveys bear this out. Current data from the Center on Education and the Workforce show that people who have earned a college degree enjoy an 84 percent increase in lifetime earnings over those with a high school education.
Proud of Obamacare
Miller, who has represented Contra Costa and the East Bay of San Francisco since 1975, is also chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, and he addressed one of the more controversial Democratic policy changes -- the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often known as Obamacare.
He helped to write the legislation and defended it forcefully, noting that “40 million people were without coverage for at least part of the year” before the law was passed. Under Obamacare, he said proudly, “you’ll never lose your coverage.”
He also reminded the students that many of them would soon not be on their parents’ health care policies without the legislation, because it allows young adults to stay on those policies until age 26 instead of 21.
“They want to call it Obamacare like that’s pejorative,” he scoffed, adding: “I’m glad the president is finally taking credit for it.”
Long Political Career
On a lighter note, Miller also joked about the flat in Washington that he has shared over the years with a revolving cast from the Democratic party leadership, including Leon Panetta, who is currently the Secretary of Defense, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin and New York Senator Chuck Schumer, calling it a of Washington version of "Animal House."
The congressman, who is 67 and lives in Martinez, also reflected on his long career in national politics. When Miller was first elected to Congress, he was part of a group of reformers known as “Watergate babies” who came to office in the early 1970s. “We were all ‘young Turks,’” said the grey-haired congressman. “We came there to change the system.”
The system has changed, but not always in a good way. Asked what differences he sees between then and now, he said money has come to dominate politics in ways it didn’t then.
“My first campaign cost about $100,000. Today, House races can cost up to $15 million,” he said.
He also lamented that fact that Washington has become extremely partisan. “Now it’s almost opposing armies. It’s really bad for the country. It’s really bad for policy,” he said, adding that politicians would do well to remember that “compromise is not a bad word.”
Despite those misgivings, it’s clear that after 38 years in the rough-and-tumble world of Washington politics, Miller is as passionate as ever about serving the public. “I’m not giving up on the principle,” he said.
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