Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

All work and no play still won’t pay for college

A few months ago, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) made waves with these choice words about students burdened by debt:

I went through school, I worked my way through, it took me seven years, I never borrowed a dime of money. He [her husband] borrowed a little bit of money because we both were totally on our own when we went to college.

I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that. We live in an opportunity society and people are forgetting that. I remind folks all the time that the Declaration of Independence says “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You don’t sit on your butt and have it dumped in your lap.

Her comments elicited a firestorm of criticism from people who recognize that times have changed – with public funding evaporating and college costs skyrocketing, middle class students and families are stretched beyond their means. Here in Washington state it means that even with students doing everything they can to keep up—holding jobs, taking out loans, taking off time to work—60% are saddled, on average, with over $22,000 dollars in debt.

An online calculator released by PBS in May now lets you see just how far we’ve slid, questioning the “work your way through college” mantra repeated by Rep. Foxx.

pbs online tuition calculator

The calculator lets users plug in hourly income as well as number of hours worked through the school year and summer to see whether a student could cover attendance costs for any year stretching back to 1976.

Assuming 20 hours of work per week during the school year and 40 hours during every break and summer, the last year that a job at Washington’s current minimum wage ($9.04) would have been sufficient to cover costs is 2001 (that doesn’t include books, transportation, health insurance, food and other cost of living expenses).

It’s a situation familiar to students like Daniela Ferrel, profiled by Linda Thomas in MyNorthwest. Even with scholarships and a job, Daniela fell behind on her tuition payments and was forced to dip into her dad’s medical savings fund in order to make ends meet.

Hard work and sacrifice are as important now as ever, but times have changed since Rep. Foxx attended UNC-Chapel Hill in 1968, when tuition was just over $1,400 in today’s dollars. Today, tuition and fees at UNC-CH are $7,694.

But North Carolina isn’t alone as a state with skyrocketing tuition. Public funding for higher education has eroded tremendously in every state – at UW Seattle, twenty years ago the state covered 80% of the cost of attendance, while students covered the other 20%. Now students cover 70%.

As public investment in higher education further erodes, the American Dream slips further out of reach for current and future generations. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Together we can work to restore funding for higher education by exploring a new idea for expanding college access: Pay It Forward.

By EOI Intern Ashwin Warrior

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