Best graduation gift is nonpartisan solution for student debt crisis

This issue of the Post-Record includes our annual “Grad Tab,” a tribute to the seniors at Camas and Washougal high schools who are preparing to graduate over the next two weeks.

Although we always love seeing the end result, the Grad Tab is not easy to pull together. This is a busy time for high school staff and finding photos of seniors for the local newspaper is never a high priority for them. We understand that, and are grateful to the folks who help us each and every year.

This special section also features the valedictorians and salutatorians from Camas and Washougal high schools, and when we say these kids are busier than most working adults, we’re not kidding. Several of this year’s valedictorians from Washougal High were in the middle of winning medals at state athletic competitions when we were trying to track them down for interviews and photos. Two valedictorians were only able to respond to our questions via email … and then only around 1 o’clock in the morning.

Despite the efforts the Grad Tab takes, however, writing these stories always brings a few tears to my eyes and elicits an overwhelming hope that these talented, earnest young people will have bright futures.

This year, however, as a Gen-Xer who will hit a rather frightening stage of life next year — paying the remaining $6,000 on a bachelor’s degree from an in-state public university she attended in the mid-1990s while trying to help her own daughter pay for her first year at an in-state public university that now costs nearly four times as much — the issue of college tuition loomed large while editing the Grad Tab.

The sad fact is that many graduates from the class of 2019 who go on to higher education institutions will face massive college debt for the rest of their lives.

At around $1.5 trillion, education debt in the United States is second only to consumer mortgage debt, and people graduating from college now owe way more than their parents or grandparents did. The Federal Reserve reports that college debt per person grew by about $20,000 in just one decade — from 2006 to 2016 — and that monthly students loans increased from $220 to nearly $400 during that same time period.

Younger generations are already figuring out they can’t afford the same “American Dream” their parents or grandparents sought out. Home ownership for Millennials (who are now in their mid-20s to late 30s) is much lower than it was for Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers when they were in their 30s: 37 percent compared to 45 percent. The reason? Young people cannot afford a down payment due to their education debts.

The federal government seems unwilling to help young people facing tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a basic bachelor’s degree and often more than $100,000 in debt for a master’s degree or higher. Lawmakers recently raised the maximum Pell Grant by just $100, for instance, bringing the total up to $6,195 for eligible students … not even enough to cover one-fourth of the annual expenses for most in-state students attending a public, four-year university.

What will the effects on our nation’s economy be when entire generations cannot afford houses, cars, vacations or retirement funds?

Several states have tried to find a solution, and the words “free college” are on several Democratic presidential candidates’ lips this election cycle.

In Washington State, for instance, House Democrats recently passed the Workforce Education Investment Act, which would collect money from surcharges on businesses that depend on higher education for their workforce, including law firms and high-tech and engineering companies, to help fund full and partial scholarships for students whose families earn 70 to 100 percent of the state’s median family income (around $88,000 for a family of four).

The bill passed the Washington House 52-45 in April, but our local legislators, Republican Reps. Larry Hoff and Brandon Vick, voted against it.

The political divide on the college debt crisis is disheartening. We should encourage our state and federal leaders to view higher education debt as a nonpartisan issue that will eventually impact everyone when (not if) our economy suffers from generations that cannot afford homes, cars or retirement funds.

The only way to tackle the college debt crisis facing future generations is to conquer this problem together.

As U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic presidential hopeful, recently said when introducing her plan to eliminate tuition at public universities through a federal-state partnership and forgive student debt: “We need to fundamentally change the broken system that created the crisis in the first place.”

~ Kelly Moyer, managing editor