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Shua Sanchez: Prosper Act would devastate graduate education and scientific advancement

A bill under serious consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives threatens the ability of college students to pursue a graduate education, and thus harms the future of scientific advancement in this country. Called the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act, the bill would create more anxiety and limit opportunities for students by decreasing the quality and accessibility of student loans, which are vital in this era of high tuition costs.

I am a first-generation Ph.D. student studying physics at the University of Washington, where 14,000 other graduate students pursue advanced degrees. As a freshman undergraduate, I took out several thousand dollars in subsidized Stafford loans to help fund my education. Under the current Higher Education Act, my loan has not accrued any interest, and as a graduate student I am not required to make any payments until I finish my degree. These provisions make a graduate education possible, as it allows thousands of students each year to begin an advanced degree program without having to simultaneously pay off large loans from their undergraduate degree.

However, if the PROSPER Act were to become law, graduate students would face new stringent income-based repayment plans and loan interest would begin accruing immediately. Yearly and lifetime borrowing caps would also be put in place, which would leave many students unable to find adequate funding to continue their degrees. These changes will drastically decrease access to higher education for millions of students, and especially to advanced-degree programs like my own.

To remedy this problem, I urge our U.S. senator, Patty Murray, to work with her colleagues to prevent this legislation from becoming law. As the ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Senate, she will play an integral role in the bill’s fate. The House version of the bill is awaiting a full floor vote while the Senate crafts its own version of the bill.

As a UW Clean Energy Institute Fellow, I work with chemists, materials scientists and other physicists to develop clean energy technology needed to mitigate climate change. Although professors play a major role in defining research goals and securing science funding, most of the experimental work is carried out by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, many of whom needed student loans to fund their education. By limiting who can participate in scientific research based on their economic means, the PROSPER Act will ultimately hinder efforts to combat climate change and slow the rate at which we make new scientific discoveries.

The PROSPER Act is truly a national concern. At a time when European and Asian countries are investing heavily in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) research and education, we need to make a career in STEM possible for anyone talented and motivated enough to pursue one. To remain globally competitive, the U.S. must foster a STEM workforce in key fields such as clean energy, which requires the broad access to graduate education that the PROSPER Act will diminish.

We develop this STEM workforce at our universities, which stand to lose high-quality graduate students due to this bill. The University of Washington is a major economic engine for the state, and it can only carry out its educational mission with the work of thousands of graduate students teaching and preparing the next generation of STEM workers. Indeed, student teaching assistants supply more than 70 percent of contact hours with undergraduates. Additionally, professional master’s degree programs are a major source of income for the university, and these are often funded via the loan programs that the PROSPER Act will cap.

Considering this information, I again urge Sen. Murray to work with her colleagues in the Senate to prevent the PROSPER Act from becoming law. The future of American higher education, scientific advancement and our ability to combat climate change are at stake.

Shua Sanchez is a Mexican-American physics Ph.D. student at the University of Washington, where he does research applicable to clean-energy technologies.

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