THE BLOG
06/18/2013 04:00 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2013

Higher Education Bids Farewell to a Staunch Ally

Senator Frank Lautenberg was a practical progressive who based action on facts, figures, and hard-won experience. He knew first-hand, for example, the connection between a college education and a life of achievement. An enlisted soldier in World War II, he earned a degree in economics on the G.I. Bill, parlaying his education into two distinct and remarkable careers, first in business and then in the Senate, where he became an influential member of three committees, including the powerful Appropriations Committee.

He never forgot the advantage that college gave him and he advocated for the same advantage for others. Nearly 60 years after graduating, he helped modernize the bill that empowered his "greatest generation" to serve the soldiers returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The resulting Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, known as the "21st Century G.I. Bill," substantially expanded both benefits and eligibility.

Senator Lautenberg believed that college should be in reach for anyone talented or motivated enough to aspire to it. He understood that expanding opportunity enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities, making a healthy higher education system firmly in our national interest. He was therefore a steadfast supporter of the federal Pell Grant program, which provides need-based funding to low-income students, and ushered through legislation that ensured a program that kept pace with demand. Just a couple of years ago, he helped pass a bill that increased the maximum grant to nearly $6,000 by 2017 and capped monthly student loan payments at 10 percent of a borrower's income. At the time of the bill's adoption in 2010, New Jersey alone was projected to receive an additional $762 million in education funding over the decade that followed.

At The College of New Jersey, where more than 50 percent of our students receive some form of tuition assistance, these funds are an integral part of the public support that enables them to come here and then propels them to exciting, academic successes. A combination of Pell grants and funding from the state Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) and Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) programs, among others, allows our undergraduates to focus intensively on their studies and, critically, to finish their degrees on time. TCNJ has the fifth highest graduation rate in the nation among public institutions.

With the economy sliding into a jobs-killing recession that put the futures of millions of Americans at risk, with a disproportionate impact on lower-income students, he backed legislation that helped stabilize the finances of public colleges and universities as their revenues declined precipitously. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that he co-authored dedicated $100 billion to educational programs, from early learning through post-secondary school. Among other measures, the bill required states to restore state funding to pre-recession levels. Critically, these measures helped defray tuition costs for students, and on our campus alone, supported nearly 200 undergraduates.

But Senator Lautenberg's value to the higher education community extended beyond his legislative successes. Campus leaders knew we could always count on him to be on the right side of our issues. Crucially, he was a passionate, unyielding voice for democratic principles, including support for young people seeking the tools to make their mark on society.

An astute and adept businessman, he also understood the implications of disinvesting in higher education for the U.S. economy. He wanted to make sure that our graduates, and the companies and institutions they would go on to join or found, were competitive in the global marketplace. Like so many of us in the academic community, he was deeply concerned to see education and research dollars stripped from our federal agencies, including from programs that support STEM education, an arena identified as a national priority.

Whenever I met with Senator Lautenberg in Washington to seek his help in securing federal funding for educational programs, he was not only on top of the issues, but also invariably warm and responsive. I last saw him in January on the annual "Chamber Walk" to Washington, a New Jersey tradition that brings throngs of business and education leaders, as well as lobbyists and activists from the state, on a packed AMTRAK train - another vital service he championed - to meet with their elected representatives. Our senior senator had just celebrated his 89th birthday, and it was gratifying and deeply inspiring to see that our progressive warrior still had fire in the belly.

We will surely miss his voice in the U.S. Senate, but his legacy as a stalwart supporter for issues that mean the most to New Jersey citizens is assured.

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