United States Senators Doug Jones, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Catherine Cortez Masto have something in common (besides being Democrats—and, of course, that both Warren and Harris are gunning for president in 2020).
They’re spearheading a movement to change the federal aid process at its very core in an effort to even the playing field for students of color.
In February, Senators Jones, Warren, Harris, and Cortez Masto sent letters to over 100 educational experts, members of academia, business leaders, and civil rights activists in hopes of gaining feedback on how to best tackle America’s educational race gap.
“Students of color encounter significant obstacles in higher education. Degree attainment rates are dramatically lower among African-American, Latino, Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native students than white students," the Senators wrote.
They’re not wrong. The facts are indeed alarming: white students are twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their black, latino, pacific islander, and American Indian peers—and 70 percent of black students are projected to default on their federal student loans/a>, according to Judith Scott-Clayton's report "The Looming Student Loan Default Crisis is Worse Than We Thought," published by the Brookings Institution in January 2018.
“These outcomes are staggering and unacceptable. As members of Congress, we are committed to doing better for these students and ask for your assistance in defining specific proposals the federal government can take to address these disparities," the Senators concluded.
__(While we're at it: But First, FAFSA: Because Financial Aid Happens on Instagram Now)__
Put simply, there is an unavoidable racial wealth gap in the United States today. Minorities are at greater risk than their white counterparts when it comes to limited educational opportunities and increased discrimination and debt.
One organization on the receiving end of the Senators’ inquiry, a non-partisan public policy think tank called New America, responded with a series of recommendations—including putting an end to federal aid for schools that use legacy admissions.
“Historically, the college admissions landscape at highly selective institutions has been sustained by policies that favor the white and wealthy, propping up a status quo that blocks access to low-income students of color," the proposal reads.
New America also recommended expediting the FAFSA process for the neediest cases, bringing federal aid to those who need it most. New America proposes limiting the “burdensome paperwork" required to apply for financial aid, using methods like exempting students who already receive some sort of federal aid from having to do more paperwork, and reducing the amount of information required.
In addition to the above recommendations, the Senators propose sweeping changes to support students of color on their journeys to higher education (you can read over them in detail here).
So, what are the next steps?
Depending on the feedback they receive, the Senators may draft a new bill or multiple bills to be reviewed by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Some of these initiatives are already in full swing. On March 12, 2019, the committee will hold a hearing to discuss simplifying the FAFSA process.
More initiatives recommended by New America and other stakeholders in the educational community may appear on the Senate floor as the movement picks up steam—but only time will tell.
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