Q & A with Bobby Scott

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA.) is currently serving his 13th term in the United States Congress, representing Virginia’s third congressional district in the House of Representatives. He currently serves as the Ranking Member on the House Committee on Education and Labor, on which he has served since he first took office in 1993.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA.) is currently serving his 13th term in the United States Congress, representing Virginia’s third congressional district in the House of Representatives. He currently serves as the Ranking Member on the House Committee on Education and Labor, on which he has served since he first took office in 1993. Congressman Scott spoke with Trustee Quarterly about his priorities for the committee over the coming legislative term, as well as the prospects for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and other key community college priorities.

As chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, what would you like to accomplish during the first half of 2019?

My top priority is to shift the Committee’s focus back to improving the lives of students, workers, and their families. This Committee has a responsibility to strengthen access to the building blocks of a strong middle class: quality and equity in education, fair wages and decent benefits for workers, and access to affordable health care.

Through legislation, hearings, and oversight, we will advance our vision of a country where everyone can succeed.

What are your top priorities for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act? Do you think a bipartisan bill is possible?

Our primary goal is to restore the original intent of the Higher Education Act so that every student around the country, regardless of circumstance, can graduate with a quality degree or credential without the burden of unaffordable debt. This requires action in three key areas.

First, we must make higher education more affordable by expanding financial support for students and incentivizing states to reinvest in their public institutions. Second, we must hold all programs accountable for providing high-quality instruction while cracking down on predatory, low-quality institutions. Third, we must create the right incentives for institutions to provide services that help students complete their education on time and successfully enter the workforce.

Education has historically been an area for bipartisanship, and we will make every effort to continue that tradition. The American people are counting on Congress to address the serious challenges in our higher education system and to correct the inequities that have prevented many students from reaching their full potential.

In many ways, the Higher Education Act is structured with a traditional student population in mind. How do you think the law should be modified to provide stronger support for non-traditional students?

Community colleges have played an integral role in educating non-traditional students at an affordable cost. As open access institutions, community colleges enroll nearly half of all undergraduates, many of whom are low-income students, first- generation students, older undergraduates, and student parents.

As we think about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we are conscious of the fact that, as   reflected by state funding, community colleges have long been undervalued. This next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act should place an emphasis on ensuring that community colleges are equipped to support students from access to completion.

The Aim Higher Act, the comprehensive HEA reauthorization proposal Democrats introduced  last  year,  expanded  Pell Grant eligibility for high-quality, short-term job preparation programs; provided direct funding to community collegesfor improvements to student services; invested in campus  child care to support student parents; and increased support for other non-traditional students, including homeless and foster youth, to ensure that all students who enter the higher education system are given the tools [needed to]  complete their education.

How would you change or improve the Pell Grant program?

Pell Grants are the foundation of federal financial aid. There are three important ways we can strengthen Pell Grants to support the needs of today’s students. The first is to make the grants more generous in order to restore the share of college costs they cover. The second is to expand eligibility to individuals who have been traditionally shut out of higher education, such as workers wanting to gain technical skills, DREAMers, and individuals in our state and federal prisons. The third is to reduce uncertainty about future Pell funding by shifting more of the program from discretionary to mandatory spending.

Do you believe there should be a stronger federal role in encouraging state support for higher education?

State disinvestment in higher education is a primary driver of the rising cost of public institutions. In the last decade, state funding for four-year institutions decreased by 24 percent, and funding for community colleges decreased by 14 percent. This trend has particularly hurt low-income students and their families who are now expected to dedicate a large share of their income toward paying for higher education.The federal government can play a critical role in reversing this trend and lifting the burden that’s been shifted to students and their families.

To address this issue, the Aim Higher Act included a federal- state partnership that would incentivize states to reinvest in all of their public institutions as well as provide tuition-free community college to all students.

Community colleges serve an important role in supporting educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals and those who have reentered society following incarceration. How can the federal government provide additional support for those individuals and the institutions serving them?

Incarcerated individuals often leave prison with few marketable skills, and they struggle to assimilate back into mainstream society. Research shows that obtaining higher educational credentials while in detention helps this population transition smoothly out of detention and reduces the likelihood of recidivism by 43 percent within three years of exiting prison. Providing incarcerated individuals with higher education opportunities means safer communities and lower costs to taxpayers 

Unfortunately, slogans and soundbites during the debate around the use of Pell for incarcerated individuals led to a ban of the practice in 1994, leaving incarcerated individuals with  no financial recourse to pursue higher education. In 2015, the Obama administration sought to re-examine this practice by creating the Second Chance Pell program, a small pilot program that expanded financial aid for incarcerated individuals and was shown to increase the rate of higher education enrollment by 236 percent among prisoners.

The Aim Higher Act allows incarcerated individuals to access Pell and obtain higher education credentials. Given the role of community colleges in providing educational opportunities to incarcerated individuals, your colleges are uniquely positioned to help ensure that these individuals get a second chance.

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