Students seek to address college affordability

Staff writerFebruary 12, 2014 

Students from the University of Washington presented their findings on student debt and financial literacy to the House Higher Education Committee Wednesday morning, increasing the dialogue on college affordability between lawmakers and students.

In fall 2013, Michael Kutz, President of the Associated Students of the University of Washington, convened a workgroup to examine what could be done to reduce student debt and create a financial aid system that would benefit more students at UW. The increasing cost of attending colleges and universities in Washington has been talked about extensively, but Kutz found that students had been missing from the dialogue.

We haven’t “really heard from students themselves that are in these particularly bad (financial) situations,” Kutz said.

The Student Debt Reduction Working Group was formed and 10 students tasked with finding out more about the issue on the university’s Seattle campus. Kutz and his team surveyed students, and found startling results.

According to their research, roughly 50 percent of UW students will graduate with debt, with the average amount totaling more than $21,000.

Kutz said their findings illuminated how students in different income groups felt the financial burden of tuition and the cost of higher education. They found that some students feel their parents make too much money to qualify for financial aid, but not enough to pay for the cost of school. That leaves many in the lurch.

Members of the workgroup shared personal stories from students with members of the committee. Hailey Badger told the story of a student whose constant financial stress took away from their college experience.

The student said “it takes away from my day to day life and enjoying the little things,” Badger said.

Jessa Cameron shared the story of a student who, due to their financial situation, had to commute to campus everyday for four years. They said they felt like they missed out on a lot and had to work hard to feel part of the UW community.

Kutz told committee members that the financial burden of higher education tuition impacts more than the students themselves. Parents are having to take out loans in addition to students and students having to work long hours to help pay for tuition or commute long distances are missing out the traditional college experience.

“This has become a Washington family issue instead of a Washington student issue,” Kutz said.

Chair of the House Higher Education Committee Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, introduced House Bill 2720, which would create the Pay it Forward program in Washington. The proposal, which stalled this session, would have allowed students to pay a percentage of their income for a set number of years after graduation instead of paying for tuition upfront.

Kutz said the workgroup is receptive of the idea of a Pay it Forward program, but didn’t think it would solve all financial problems facing students. The Student Debt Reduction Working Group found increasing financial literacy among students, increasing funding to the state need grant and reducing tuition are important to increasing affordability for students.

Many members of the committee were receptive of Kutz’s findings and said the findings of the workgroup were important to students in Washington seeking a way to fund their higher education.

“What these young people have brought forward to us today makes us incumbent upon us to something about this sort of thing,” said Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima. “I think it’s way out of hand and I think we have some reeling in to do.”

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