He is the son of a shipyard worker. He will be a first-generation college student from a hard-working family in an old industrial town. He dreams of becoming a lawyer and, someday, serving in Congress. He is, in short, the American dream.
He is out somewhere out there right now. He might be taking his SAT tomorrow, before driving his old car down to the pizza shop where he will do whatever tasks his boss requests, and he won’t get home until well after midnight. But he will wake up for church in the morning, because he knows how important that is to his mom. And he’ll scrape the snow off of her windshield, so she doesn’t have to get her winter coat smudged.
He will be facing a struggle to meet college costs, but he has faced struggles before, so he will succeed. He can patch together some grant money, part of his own savings and, most likely, a federal student loan. His parents will give him whatever they can. His dad will keep changing the oil on his old car, and not even think about a new one. His mom will make do with the fading curtains in the living room, and the crack in the window of the creaky front door.
And he has even greater hope, I would suggest, because he has footsteps to follow from a champion in Congress who traveled a similar journey about a quarter of a century ago.
His name is Rob Andrews, and I heard him speak yesterday at the Education Funding Conference of the Consumer Bankers Association. He is a Democrat and he got a standing ovation in a room that, I would venture to guess, was three-quarters Republican.
He got such a warm response because he spoke from the heart, but his head is on straight. He spoke of growing up in Camden, New Jersey, of getting student loans to attend Bucknell University for undergrad and Cornell for his law degree. He said he got his first student loan when he and his dad walked in together to the Camden Savings and Loan, in the old Polish neighborhood of that aging ghost of a city. That’s the place where Walt Whitman, by candlelight, discovered the power of the English language, and began to scribble the first words of his distinctly American poetry. And it’s the place where Rob Andrews began his distinctly American journey.
After law school, Rob Andrews came home and ran for office. He is now in his 13th year in Congress. He is a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and the knowledge and perspective he has acquired show why term limits would be such an enormous mistake. He has been through two previous reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act. He knows the law and its impact on lives. And his basic message was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
He wants to preserve the best parts of a federal student loan program that has enabled more than 62 million Americans to attend college and to achieve their own dreams. He realizes that the loan program isn’t perfect, that it needs some tinkering around the edges. He supports increasing loan limits, and predicts that an increase will happen. He supports the phasing out of origination fees, what our Coalition for Better Student Loans calls “an unfair tax” on borrowers. And he supports strengthening the parts of the loan program that allow borrower relief, or even loan forgiveness, under extenuating circumstances.
He predicts, when all the shouting is over, that Congress will, as in the past, put partisan wrangling aside and do what is best for American families who are trying to achieve the dream of a higher education for their own son or daughter. He hopes this will happen in 2004, but he is enough of a realist to say that there is a 50-50 chance it won’t happen until 2005.
Whenever it happens, members of College Parents of America should take heart that someone such as Rob Andrews is out there watching out for the interests of students and their families. A current member of Congress, who has not forgotten his past and who, in fact, has lessons to share that can help to frame a very positive debate on the future of higher education.
For the first time ever, college parents will be at the center of that debate. The more of you we have as members, the stronger impact we can have on the process. Please encourage your family members, friends and neighbors to visit www.collegeparents.org and sign up today. Until next week, thank you for your support.