Come Nov., College Becomes a Hot Button

    Responding to soaring college tuition costs, increased student-loan interest rates and reduced federal aid, many student-advocate organizations are making their final push in efforts to increase awareness about college affordability and mobilize voters for the upcoming November elections.

    The issue of college affordability became a major concern of students and parents when Congress recently cut $12 billion in funding from student aid programs.

    “[Congress] underfunded the Pell Grant Program, ended federal support for the Perkins College Loan Program and killed other grants completely,” stated a report conducted by the College Affordability Campaign, an umbrella organization for student groups.

    “It’s really a tragic thing for students that Congress is not prioritizing education,” UC Students Association President Bill Shiebler said. “Congress chose to turn its back on students by reducing aid and postponing the [Higher Education Act],” the most significant piece of legislation that affects higher education.

    Regardless of the reason why Congress decided to reduce federal aid for higher education, the lack of financial assistance universally impacts students and families as well as public and private institutions, according to Shiebler.

    Carmen Berkley, a member of the executive board of legislative liaison for USSA, also said she agrees that Congress fails to prioritize college affordability by “taking money away from higher education and putting it into other areas such as defense.”

    Currently, Shiebler and the CAC’s report indicate that the average debt accumulated by an undergraduate student totals between $17,500 and $19,000.

    Shiebler said that one in four college students work at least 20 hours per week in order to pay for tuition and other expenses due to the lack of sufficient financial aid. “When did it become a policy of this country to increase work burden for a degree and be in debt when [a student] graduates?” he said.

    Congress’ cut in higher education funds compels students to pay more or borrow more in loans, further increasing their debt and discouraging them to pursue graduate education, Shiebler said. In fact, CAC statistics found that “the average tuition and fees at four-year public colleges has risen 40 percent since 2001, [causing] 400,000 qualified students enroll at community colleges rather than four-year institutions.” Furthermore, financial barriers prevent another 200,000 students from attending college, the report stated.Although there seems to be a perception that private institutions are more generous with their financial aid packages, Shiebler said that students who attend private colleges also need additional financial aid.

    The number of students in the United States who take out loans is currently at 7 million and continues to rise, according to Luke Swarthout, an associate from the California chapter of the Public Interest Research Group based in Washington, D.C.

    Furthermore, aside from discouraging students to pursue a college degree, Swarthout said that graduating with a high level of debt has another significant impact — spending years to financially recover from possibly ruined credit, which impedes employment opportunities.

    Another consequence of students’ increasing debt is that it discourages them from pursuing the low-paying, social service jobs such as teaching, social work or public service, Berkley said.

    “College is about opening doors, occupationally and intellectually,” Swarthout said. “Students are unable to pursue their careers [because they are] forced to choose a job based on their debt, which stops people from going into critical jobs [like public service] and doing socially meaningful work that may not pay as much.”

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