Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
With college tuition out of reach for many low-income and working class families, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah., introduced legislation on Thursday that would take a version of an Arizona college savings program national.
The bipartisan Earn to Learn Act aims to make college more affordable and reduce student loan debt by matching savings from low-income students. The funds can be used to pay for tuition, books and other education-related expenses that might otherwise prevent them from attending.
The legislation is modeled off Arizona’s Earn to Learn program, which partners with the state’s three public universities and community colleges in Maricopa and Pima counties to match the funding dollar-for-dollar and comes as college affordability has become a growing concern, especially on the left.
Eligible students must qualify for Pell Grant aid, according to the legislation, and must complete training in personal finance and prove they can save money by making a minimum of six consecutive deposits totaling $500 in a savings account.
In return, they can receive an 8-to-1 match on their savings of up to $4,000 per year for college expenses at Arizona universities and community colleges.
The program in Arizona has a nearly 90% retention rate, according to the organization, and most graduate with little tuition debt. More than 3,000 students have participated in the program.
Sinema and Romney’s legislation seeks to expand the program nationally, and to make the money also available to those attending career and technical schools.
The legislation directs $100 million for five years to fund the program, which would be overseen by the U.S. Department of Education. An estimated 250,000 students across the country could use the program over those five years.
With students in the U.S. carrying more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, college costs rising, and the purchasing power of federal Pell Grants diminishing, the senators say the nation needs a new, national approach to helping low-income students go to college without taking on mountains of debt.
“Education was my key to opportunity, and I’m committed to ensuring all Arizona students have the same access to higher education that I did,” said Sinema, who has five degrees, in a written statement announcing the legislation. “Creating a college-matched savings program helps Arizona students save for school while teaching the importance of money-management.”
Romney said in a statement the legislation would better arm students with financial knowledge and resources “without the burden of being saddled with debt when they graduate.”
The program unlocked the potential for Veronique Villalba, who was raised by her single mom in Tucson.
Until she heard about the Earn to Learn program her senior year of high school, Villalba didn’t even think of college as an option. She is the oldest of four kids, money was always scarce and there wasn’t even much money to set aside.
Villalba started saving about $50 a month, and soon after, became eligible for the program.
Now, she couples her Earn to Learn money with scholarships and financial aid and is on track to graduate from the University of Arizona Honors College with a double major in environmental studies and Spanish with a minor in natural resources.
“Those extra few thousand dollars really make a difference,” she said of the Earn to Learn match. “Without that, I’d probably be $8,000 in debt for loans. … It would be impossible for me. It really allowed me to think, ‘I can do college, I don’t have to worry about my finances, I can give it my all.’”
The money freed her up to fully participate in college, join clubs and be a peer mentor.
Over the years, she has also sought advice from program employees on filling out financial aid paperwork and her personal resources. She has a 3.96 GPA and earns money through a job on campus.
“I got really lucky — all my cards lined up perfectly, but that’s not the case for everybody,” she said. “I cannot imagine my college experience without Earn to Learn.”
The legislation’s prospects in the Senate are unclear, though Sinema’s aides expressed confidence it could garner broad, bipartisan support and advance in the coming months either as a stand-alone bill or as part of a larger legislative package.
Broadly, President Joe Biden has offered proposals to make college more affordable and accessible, but in an era of hyper-partisanship, it’s unclear how quickly or broadly his legislative ambitions could move in a narrowly divided Congress.
Sinema and Romney introduced the legislation last year, but it did not draw attention as Congress urgently worked to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.