Senators’ answers on college don’t cut it

At a Camas School District workshop Monday night, a few school board members worried that a plan to improve adolescent health by starting the school day later and letting teens get more sleep might backfire, not because it wasn’t based on sound research, but because many Camas teens might try to pack even more academics into their already insane schedules.
Just a few hours later, a few of these very driven, high-achieving Camas students sat on a stage with three Washington state senators and asked them pointed questions about things like the out-of-control college debt burdening today’s young people.
These students had worked for months to make this town hall a reality. They had gathered question ideas from their peers, attended government classes to get a handle on issues that state senators might be able to affect and had clearly done their research.
So, when it came time for the senators to answer these students’ very timely, well-researched questions about college debt, you would have expected that our political leaders would do their very best to help these obviously college-bound kids understand the hurdles facing them in the “real world” and talk about some of the options legislators have in their toolbox to help these students thrive.
Sen. Annette Cleveland, a Democrat, did talk about a few of the things state legislators can do to help control college costs and make higher education more affordable. She talked about open source textbooks and free community college — both of which have been shown to be effective at helping students from lower- and middle-income families afford education after high school.
But Sens. Ann Rivers and Lynda Wilson, Republicans who represent east Clark County and Camas-Washougal, gave more disappointing answers, towing the GOP’s latest talking points on higher education: that technical and trade schools are the answer, that free community college is bad and that four-year colleges and universities are not giving students the skills they need to survive in today’s jobs. Sen. Rivers even went so far as to tell these students — many of whom are packing in all the AP courses they can handle to get a head-start on their college careers and save their families, and themselves, tens of thousands of dollars — that “it’s important to have some skin in the game.”
The answers from the Republican senators were truly disappointing, but not surprising. After all, the majority of Republicans say they believe that four-year universities and colleges are “harming the country.”
Are they getting this idea from right-wing media outlets? Because they’re not getting it from any solid facts.
Here is what we know about higher education in this country: By 2020, more than 65 percent of all job openings in the U.S. will require a degree higher than a high school diploma. What’s more, having a degree pays off: Individuals who earn their high school diploma and go no further with their education earn an average $23,500 less than the average annual wage (around $41,500). Those with an associate’s degree make around the average wage. A bachelor’s degree from a four-year college will help them earn about $55,000, while a master’s degree or doctorate will bump them up to $65,000 a year or more.
There is absolutely no doubt that colleges are becoming out of range for many students, even those in higher-income families. In the early 1970s, tuition at a public, four-year college was about $2,500 (adjusted for inflation). In 2015, it was nearly $10,000 a year. Unfortunately, wages did not grow at this same rate. In the 1970s, tuition would have eaten up about 7 percent of a man’s income and 20 percent of a woman’s income. By 2015, it was 25 percent of a man’s average income and 39 percent of a woman’s average income.
Legislators have tools they can use to help control the cost of college. They can freeze or cap tuition at state schools, pursue free community college policies that have shown to be good for students and the local economy, use general funds to supplement college budgets and help students with financial aid. What they can’t do is just say, “Oh, it’s good for you to pay for it. It will help you grow,” or “Well, have you considered going to a trade school?”
That’s a slap in the face to students like the ones so common in Camas, who are waking up at 6 a.m. to get to class, working well into the night to complete their coursework and doing everything in their power to help ensure a stable future in a highly competitive world.