2020 On The Issues: Making college affordable

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made a campaign trail stop in Peterborough Tuesday, visiting the Bagel Mill to speak to supporters, take a few selfies with the crowd and get a cup of tea.  Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during the New Hampshire Youth Climate and Clean Energy Town Hall, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) Mary Altaffer

  • Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., delivers his response to President Donald Trump's State of the Union at The Currier Museum of Art, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Andrew Harnik

  • Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the New Hampshire Youth Climate and Clean Energy Town Hall at the Bank of N.H. Stage in Concord on Wednesday. AP

  • Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campign event at Girls Inc. on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020 in Nashua, N.H. The first in the national primary takes place in New Hampshire on Feb. 11. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images/TNS) Scott Eisen

  • Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg pauses as he speaks during the New Hampshire Youth Climate and Clean Energy Town Hall, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) Mary Altaffer

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made a campaign trail stop in Peterborough Tuesday, visiting the Bagel Mill to speak to supporters, take a few selfies with the crowd and get a cup of tea. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monitor staff
Published: 2/5/2020 7:53:04 PM

Like most students, Emily Jenkins had to choose between the best college for her and the best price.

Eight years ago, she chose the best college. Now, she’s paying the price.

Even with a combination of merit scholarships and lots of help from her parents, Jenkins walked away with a psychology degree from Wheelock College, a private school in Boston, with $30,000 in loans.

Like many people her age, she likes both Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for lots of reasons. But it’s their bold plans to offer free college that intrigued her most.

“I like that what they are talking about isn’t just making the current debt go away, but how can we prevent other kids from getting this debt,” said Jenkins, who graduated from Bow High School in 2012. “They are getting debt that is way worse – six figures of debt to get a degree so that they can do what they want for a career.”

She thinks the government should do more to control college costs and help students pay for tuition. Even better, make it free, she said.

“I think education should be mostly government-funded,” she said. “We offer through grade 12, but I think we should offer at the very least a few years after that, so you can get through general education requirements.”

As college costs have soared, so has student debt, making it one of the most significant financial issues for Millenials and their Gen X parents.

Recognizing the issue and a captive audience, all of the Democratic candidates support some form of free college, but there is substantial variation in scope, according to a study released Wednesday by the Carsey School of Public Policy. Similarly, most candidates promise relief on existing loans, but some provide greater assistance to students with the largest debts regardless of their income, while others want to target assistance to lower-income earners and those in public service.

The diversity of approaches between the candidates is striking, the Carsey School found.

The average student loan debt for members of the Class of 2018 is $29,200, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. And federal student debt now totals $1.5 trillion, its highest level ever. It is now the second leading consumer debt category, behind only mortgage debt.

‘Shadow that hangs over you’

These days, Jenkins is working in Manchester at Manchester Child Development Center as an infant teacher. Jenkins said it’s a job she loves – and she doesn’t want her loans to impact her ability to stay there long-term.

“At the time I didn’t really care about the money or the loans, because I just wanted the best education,” she said, of when she started the college search in high school. “Now, I don’t have as many loans as some of my peers do, but I am paying literally for choosing that expensive education now. It’s a shadow that hangs over you and your future.”

The issue of college affordability is particularly acute in New Hampshire, which has some of the highest in-state tuition costs in the country and graduates are saddled with the most debt.

The Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire is hosting an event Thursday from 3:30-7:30 p.m. in Huddleston Hall Ballroom to explore the topic of college affordability as well as look at how the issue is playing out on the campaign trail.

Speakers include presidential candidates of both parties, U.S. legislators, and political and college affordability experts. All presidential candidates from both parties were invited to speak.

College cost is an ever-present issue for young people who’ve been crippled by debt from a system that was not created to give them the support they need.

Maggie Phillips, of Pembroke, works three jobs, 20 hours a week, and is a full-time student at Keene State College.

Phillips, 19, is a sophomore studying political science and has already accrued $25,000 in debt. She went to NHTI for her first semester of school to save more costs.

Phillips and her parents estimated she would graduate with about $50,000 in debt, but even that was low.

“Around $57,000 – even just saying that number that feels like a death sentence,” she said. “I have no concept of that at all.”

Phillips said the candidate that stood out to her on the campaign trail has been Sanders, who has promised to eliminate tuition at public schools as well as private historically black and other minority-serving colleges. Sanders would write off $1.6 trillion in student loans. Sanders would also triple the number of work-study jobs.

“From the get-go, I have known he’s my candidate. We bailed out the banks after the recession and we need to do the same for people with student debt,” she said. “There are people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are still paying their student debts. I signed up to get an education not to live in poverty for 30 or 40 years.”

State funding for public colleges and universities has declined for years, leading to soaring costs. At the same, federal student assistance has decreased. The combination made student debt nearly triple in a decade.

“In the distant past, students might have reasonably expected to pay their tuition and living expenses with the earnings from a part-time or summer job. But for decades now, college costs have risen inexorably, and increasing costs without equal increases in grant aid have resulted in pervasive affordability challenges and rising student debt,” the Carsey study said.

States often make deep cuts in higher education during economic downturns, but they tend not to replace the funds when times are good. The trend accelerated during the Great Recession when almost all states made deep cuts, but those cuts were particularly sharp in the Granite State, which gives the lowest amount of college aid per person of all the states, according to the Carsey study.

Candidate’s plans

All of the Democratic candidates support some form of free college, the Carsey study found. Former mayor Pete Buttigieg hopes to eliminate tuition at all public colleges and universities for students with family incomes under $100,000. He also wants to offer at least some subsidies for students with families earning under $125,000. Warren would make all public colleges and universities tuition-free.

Sen. Michael Bennet, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Gov. Deval Patrick and Tom Steyer would provide money to states to eliminate tuition at community colleges. These programs would be funded in part by the federal government, and in part by each state, according to the Carsey analysis.

Andrew Yang would make community college “tuition-free or nearly free,” funded by the government and businesses, according to the Carsey study. Among Republicans, Gov. Bill Weld would offer two free years at a community college or a university.

Nearly all of the Democratic candidates would also increase spending on Pell Grants, a program that assists low-income students in paying for college costs. Biden and Klobuchar would double the size of Pell Grants – now about $6,200. Klobuchar would also expand eligibility for Pell Grants to families earning up to $100,000. Buttigieg and Warren would invest smaller amounts to increase Pell grants by about $1,000 per student, the Carsey study found.

Bennet supports expanding Pell Grants to technical training, according to the study. President Trump would extend Pell Grants to programs that are shorter than the traditional academic semester.

Bennet, Biden, and Weld wish to offer additional loan forgiveness to those in public service jobs. Steyer would improve the implementation of the public service loan forgiveness promised by current law. Sen. Klobuchar would forgive loans for those in in-demand occupations, according to the Carsey study.

U.S. Rep Tulsi Gabbard and Yang would allow loans to be forgiven in cases of bankruptcy. President Trump is also considering this step, the Carsey study noted, citing the Wall Street Journal.

Buttigieg and Patrick would cancel debt for those who attended low-quality for-profit colleges and offer reductions to students who do not graduate, according to the Carsey report.

‘A ton of money’

Matthew Gerding said he was eyeing opportunities out of state before he graduated from Concord High. He liked McGill in Canada or the University of Rochester in New York but he chose UNH because it was the best financial option for him.

Gerding’s father worked at Plymouth State as a locksmith and he was able to receive reduced tuition, along with scholarships and grants. He worked full-time in college between a job at the dining halls all four years and a job in the university’s research labs.

“I felt like I was making the best decision I possibly could and I still walked away with a bunch of money I owed,” said Gerding, now a sixth-grade science and math teacher at Somersworth Middle School.

He ended by with $20,000 in student loans after graduating with a microbiology degree in 2012.

“That’s a ton of money – that’s a car – but compared to so many people with debt that’s nothing,” he said. 

Now, he’s back at UNH while teaching full time getting his master’s in education public policy.

His job helps pay his tuition and he applied for a federal benefit for teachers in math and science, which could contribute up to $17,500.

Gerding said he likes Warren’s plan best. In addition to free tuition at public universities and colleges, Warren has proposed forgiving the first $50,000 in debt, based upon income, and promised to do so on day one of her presidency. 

“She’s trying to take a big chunk out of the pockets of people and saying, ‘I don’t want people to have as much debt – I want people to worry about other things, like their career or family and not have to worry about paying for college,” he said.

“Shes been reasonable,” he added. “I think Bernie’s is a little too sweeping.”

Mackenzie Murphy, 22, got her associate’s degree at Nashua Community College and transferred to Granite State College, where she studied psychology and business management online and was able to work at the community college in the admissions and financial aid office.

She did a year of AmeriCorps and received $5,500 to put toward college. She is currently enrolled in a master’s program at SNHU and she’s paying for two classes every 10 weeks to avoid loans.

Murphy said she liked Sanders’s plan best because it will expand federal Pell grants, make public colleges and universities tuition-free and increase work-study opportunities.

“Working in the admissions office, when you see those students who come into the office and they want to come to college but don’t have support from their parents, or can’t afford it, it’s not fair and it takes away so many opportunities from them,” she said. “Bernie’s plan would change that.”

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWill ingham.)

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