Welcome back, Gauchos! I hope all of you had a great summer and I offer a special welcome to all the new UCSB students.

Pursuing a college degree and selecting a university are major life decisions, and I think your choice of UCSB is a great one. UCSB has always been a special place for me and my family. My husband Walter was a professor here for many years, my son graduated from the university and I am a proud alumna of the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education.

I know that beyond the excellent academic credentials you needed to get accepted to UCSB, you also had to figure out how to pay for it. This is no small feat, especially in an economy where families are facing rising costs and are being asked to stretch fewer dollars farther.

Nowhere is that more true than on campus. While a college education is more important than ever, its cost is higher than ever. In the last five years, college costs have grown nearly 40 percent, and every year an estimated 200,000 potential students do not attend college because they can’t afford it.

Democrats in Congress have long recognized that universal access to a quality education must be one of our country’s key priorities, not only because of the opportunities it offers our kids but also because it is absolutely critical to our future economic competitiveness. That’s why, since taking control of Congress in 2007, Democratic leaders have taken major steps to make college more affordable and accessible. As you might expect, President Obama (a former professor himself) shares this commitment to higher education. One of his administration’s top priorities is to ensure that by 2020 America again leads the world in the number of college graduates.

Congress made an important step forward in this initiative last week when the House passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA). As the largest-ever investment in higher education, SAFRA will significantly increase government grant and loan assistance for colleges by increasing Pell Grants in size and scope. Already distributed to more than 5 million students, Pell Grants will be made available to another 4.5 million students and will also increase to $6,900 by 2019 (from $5,350 today). In my Congressional District alone – which includes UCSB, Cal Poly, Westmont and other schools of higher education – over 6,800 additional students will be eligible to receive Pell Grants because of this legislation.

This is possible because SAFRA will change the way the student loan system works by originating new loans exclusively through the government’s successful Federal Direct Loan program starting in 2010, rather than through lenders subsidized by taxpayers in the federally guaranteed student loan program. This change should generate nearly $90 billion in savings to the taxpayer and those savings will be used to make Pell Grants more widely available and more generous and to reduce our national debt. Unlike the lender-based program, the Direct Loan program is entirely insulated from market swings and can therefore guarantee students access to affordable college loans at the same low interest rates, terms and conditions, no matter what happens in the economy.

This bill follows action we took last summer when we enacted the Higher Education Opportunity Act. This new law provided up to $10,000 in loan forgiveness for students pursuing high need public service careers, increased college aid for active duty military personnel and family members and also made improvement in the Pell Grant program. And in 2007 we passed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which increased financial aid by more than $20 billion over five years. It also prevented student borrowers from facing unmanageable levels of debt by guaranteeing that borrowers will never have to spend more than 15 percent of their yearly discretionary income on loan repayments. The typical UCSB student borrower has over $15,000 in need-based student loan debt. Once fully phased in, our legislation will save the average UCSB student borrower $5,000 over the life of their loan.

I’m proud of the changes Congress has made to make college more affordable and accessible for thousands of students here at UCSB and millions of students across the country, even during these challenging economic times. Looking ahead, President Obama and the Democratic Congress will continue to push for measures that strengthen our economy and increase opportunity for all Americans. Certainly, this will include reforming and strengthening our nation’s education programs to ensure they always operate in the best interests of students and families.

I look forward to seeing you on campus, and I wish you the best of luck this year with your studies.   Go Gauchos!