Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said last night that the rising costs of higher education are "shameful" and said it will take more than "lip service" to achieve the equal opportunity goals set by great American leaders.
At the James E. Rogers College of Law-facilitated speech at the Marriott, Kennedy said after four years of troubling trends, education needs to return as one of the country's highest priorities.
Past political leaders such as the founding fathers, labor leader César Chávez, and Kennedy's brother, John F. Kennedy, made important advances for the country in expanding educational opportunities, Kennedy said.
"Our founders understood that this was important," said Kennedy, the second most senior member of the Senate. "That education is not just an individual right but a way of creating informed and educated citizens."
But in the past four years, federal support for education has taken a detour, Kennedy told about a hundred law students, faculty, and UA administrators like Provost George Davis and President Peter Likins.
"We can't allow the current situation to continue," Kennedy said. "College federal aid has to keep pace with the rising cost of education."
Kennedy pointed out that since George Bush took office, Pell Grants for low-income students are covering a smaller portion of students' tuition and the number of grants students receive is decreasing while the number of loans they have to take out is increasing.
"Costs should never ever be a disqualifier for a well-qualified student to go to college," Kennedy said.
In light of the increasingly global economy and the income gap between college graduates and non-college graduates, support for higher education is more important, Kennedy said.
Kennedy said increasing accessibility requires the federal government to fill any financial gap the families of students, the state, and colleges cannot fill.
"Money is not the answer to everything but it's a clear indication of where a country's priorities are," Kennedy said, adding that for every dollar the federal government spends, 2.6 cents goes toward education.
Kennedy said he supports practical solutions to the problem of accessibility to higher education. He said tax credits should be expanded, the repayment of student loans should become less burdensome, and support should be provided for the direct lending program, where the American people, not corporate lenders provide financial aid for students.
Kennedy also said college-related debt should be forgiven for college graduates who work for the public sector, which appealed to Patrick Staffer, a third year law student who ushered attendees at the event.
Staffer said debt forgiveness for public employees would encourage more students to fill important public positions.
"It's hard going into the public sector because you don't make that much," said Staffer, who's planning on becoming a public defender after graduation.
Staffer said if he were an out-of-state student paying much higher tuition, he wouldn't consider being a public defender because the debt he'd have incurred would be too great.
Kennedy said not all recent trends in education need to be changed.
In response to a question submitted from the audience, Kennedy said in a post-Sept. 11 world, increasing support and interest in Near Eastern studies is "one of the most encouraging developments in universities and colleges."
Kennedy said military power can only do so much to counter terrorist threats and understanding the histories, cultures, and religions of the areas some of these threats originate is key to a more secure future.
The speech was sponsored by the Isaac Marks Memorial, a private donor which brings well-known speakers to universities.