Opinion

Students, workers in retraining being kicked off ladder of opportunity | Column

Rep. Jerry Pollet serves Kenmore residents in Olympia. - Reporter file photo
Rep. Jerry Pollet serves Kenmore residents in Olympia.
— image credit: Reporter file photo

Like many of you, I’m a parent of a public college student (my daughter goes to Western Washington University).

I also teach at the University of Washington. I’m worried that our kids are being kicked off the ladder of opportunity after huge tuition increases and skyrocketing interest rates have led to student loan debts the size of a home mortgage.

Why is it OK for the interest rate on a student loan to be far higher than the interest rate for buying a used car?

Now, students at UW Bothell, Cascadia Community College, UW Seattle and every other public college in Washington are struggling to pay crushing tuition bills.

In 2013, state assistance to higher education is 23 percent less than it was in 2008. Tuition has doubled since 2008, due in large part to massive budget cuts. Now, UW tuition costs one-fifth of the income of an average family in our state. Thirty-two thousand students who qualify for state financial aid don’t receive it.

I have seen this firsthand. Like many other parents, I am trying to keep up with the ever increasing cost of tuition. I’ve learned it often takes a lot longer than four years to earn a bachelor’s degree, due to reductions in staffing and courses. That drastically increases costs for families and deprives our businesses of the skilled workforce they need to succeed.

After five years of cuts, the average faculty member at Western Washington University earns less than our underpaid high school teachers in Whatcom County.

Even if we avoid a state shutdown by July 1 - we desperately need to restore the funding that has been cut over the last five years, and invest in a world class higher education system. We must restore financial aid so that students can afford to climb the ladder of opportunity.

We need robust job retraining programs for thousands of workers who became casualties of this cruel recession. Many are their family breadwinners, who without adequate aid, have been forced out of training that will help them procure a family-wage job.

I know students working three jobs so they can stay in school. Many work full-time and go to school full-time, which is unbelievably challenging. They do this because we’ve taught them to believe in the American dream. We’ve taught them that if they work hard and play by the rules, then anything is possible. Financial aid is a life-line for them.

If we don’t provide enough aid and make tuition affordable enough for students to go to college, what message does that send to them about hope and opportunity?

We have to reverse this.

Fortunately, there is growing bipartisan support in the Legislature to rein in the costs of tuition. The choices we make today determine our future. We have the opportunity with House Bill 2038 to fund education, including increasing access to high-tech degree programs, by closing corporate loopholes that don’t create jobs.

What kind of state do we want our kids to inherit? Tell the Senate Republican majority that Washingtonians deserve a chance to make it to the middle class. Tell them we want our kids going to college and getting prepared for the jobs right here at home. The legislative hotline is 1-800-562-6000 – please urge legislators to pass a budget by July 1, pass HB 2038, and amply fund our colleges and universities. Tell them the people of Washington are counting on them and they deserve nothing less.

State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-46, is the vice chair of the House Higher Education Committee. The 46th Legislative District covers Kenmore. Contact him at 360-786-7886.

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