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Amendment would open access to 4-year college for Marianas, American Samoa students

American Samoa Community College. [SN file photo]

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Office of the CNMI Congressional Delegate) — During a committee drafting session on the Higher Education Act Tuesday, U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan proposed creating a federal program to help pay for the last two years of college for graduates of Northern Marianas College or American Samoa Community College.

Congressman Sablan made the case that the Northern Marianas and American Samoa are the only U.S. jurisdictions without a 4-year public college, where students may complete a baccalaureate degree. And he compared his proposal to the program for students from the District of Columbia, who receive federal assistance to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities anywhere in the United States.

Two Republicans voted with all Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, but the Sablan amendment was narrowly defeated, 19-20.

“Education continues to be my number one priority in Congress,” Sablan said. “And the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act now underway provides me the opportunity to help make college more affordable for students from the Marianas.”

“I want to thank my Republican friends, Duncan Hunter of California and Dr. Phil Roe of Tennessee for voting with me on my amendment. Even though we were not successful in committee, we can still bring this up again in the Rules Committee and when the bill comes to the floor for a vote.”

The Higher Education Act was last reauthorized in 2008, before Sablan was elected to Congress.

The congressman had been working in the run-up to Tuesday’s session to have his 4-year college proposal incorporated into the Republican base bill. But, even though his proposal would have also helped American Samoan students, represented in Congress by Republican Amata Aumua Coleman Radewagen, the Republican-led committee was unwilling to add a new program and new costs.

So, the Marianas congressman offered his plan as an amendment. “Nonresident students spend an average of $14,480 more per year in out-of-state tuition and fees than their resident peers at public four-year colleges, according to College Board,” Sablan explained.

“Students in the Marianas and American Samoa wanting to attend a four-year school after getting their community college degree not only face the cost of nonresident tuition, but also the significant expense of travel. The Marianas are over 3,700 miles from the nearest state, Hawaii — a $1,100 one-way trip by plane.”

Democratic member Donald Norcross of New Jersey compared the situation for island students to the “food deserts” that people in some urban areas face. “A four-year college desert,” he called it. “The fact that there is little, if any opportunity to pursue within a reasonable cost a quality education, four-year program… I think [Ranking Member Sablan’s] is a cost-effective, good idea.”

Also supporting the Sablan amendment were the Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott of Virginia and Rep. Mark Takano, D-California.

“For far too long our country has neglected and marginalized the needs of its Pacific islands and territories on an array of policy issues,” Takano told the committee. “And, as the Education Task Force chair for the Congressional Asian-Pacific American Caucus, I know that education is no exception. Today, 43 percent of all native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders only have a high school diploma or less.”

Congressman Sablan was successful at amending the federal funding formula for elementary and secondary education in the islands in December 2015. That formula distributes money every year to schools with students from low-income families. This year the Marianas Public School System received approximately $4.5 million over and above its usual grant as a result of Sablan’s amendment.

Sablan was also an original cosponsor of the 2009 legislation that made more Marianas students eligible for Pell grants to attend college, and increased the dollar amount of the annual Pell grant. As a result, most U.S. students are now able to attend Northern Marianas College for free.

Getting help for Marianas students who want to go beyond NMC has long been a goal of the Marianas congressman. In both the 111th and 112th Congresses he introduced legislation similar to the amendment he offered today to the Higher Education Act.