It’s often said that education is the best investment we can make in ourselves. Here in Eastern Washington, I’m proud to represent so many higher-education institutions that are working every day to help students meet their full potential and live out their passions. As a first-generation college student myself, my commitment is to making sure college is affordable and that there are jobs here in our community so our graduates can stay in Eastern Washington.
Traveling around our communities and meeting with local college students, I hear these same concerns – they want to be able to find a good-paying job when they graduate. Fortunately, today’s graduates are entering a job market that’s better than students of the past decade could’ve imagined. Right now we have record low unemployment rates. Wages are growing at their fastest rate in nine years. GDP growth is at 4.2 percent. For the first time in our history, there are more jobs in America than people to fill them. These are the policies I promised to advance in Congress – policies that create jobs, raise wages, and allow everyone here in Eastern Washington to live their version of the American Dream.
I’ll do everything in my power to help students be set up for success when they enter the workforce. Which is why I’m working hard on workforce development to ensure we are advocating for opportunities like trade schools, vocational schools and community colleges to meet the needs of students who may not be looking for the traditional four-year college experience. That’s why I have voted in favor of legislation that helps provide greater access to federal funding for these alternative education options, supports innovative learning opportunities, and encourages stronger engagement between these institutions and employers in the community. Through supporting innovative forms of higher education, we can provide alternatives to the expensive four-year education that’s leaving our students riddled with debt.
However, even though the job market is great, there are other obstacles facing today’s students. The increasing cost of higher education and debt burden our students face upon graduation is a growing threat to economic prosperity and success.
Many in my generation were fortunate to be able to work our way through college. I myself worked at our family orchard and fruit stand in Kettle Falls and McDonald’s in Colville to save up for tuition. For students today, that’s no longer a reality. That’s because over the past decade, Democratic leadership in the state legislature led the effort to disinvest in our higher education system, nearly cutting the state’s contribution in half between 2009 and 2013. This resulted in nearly a doubling of tuition rates across the state’s public universities in just four years. These leaders made the conscious decision to dramatically shift the cost of higher education away from the state and onto the backs of students.
With these drastic cuts to higher education, I’m more committed than ever to providing options and resources for students so they can lower their debt burden. That’s why I’m a co-sponsor of legislation to extend funding for the Perkins Loan program, which offers need-based, low-income loans. I’ve also led in Congress to get legislation signed into law to ensure that Pell Grants are available year round. With a growing number of non-traditional college students, allowing year-round Pell Grants will help more people access higher education. Additionally, I’ve led in Congress to support programs like TRIO and GEAR UP for first-generation students to help provide them the resources they need to succeed.
Another way we can address student loan debt is by making sure students have financial counseling throughout their time in college. Currently, financial counseling for students is only required when they are incoming freshmen. Just last week, I voted in the House to pass legislation which will require it yearly to ensure students have the information they need to make smart financial decisions and reduce the risk of over-borrowing.
Fundamentally, states have a responsibility to fund higher education at our public institutions. While I will continue to work in Congress to provide options for students, we cannot solve this crisis until our state makes the choice to put our students first. Students right now will graduate with the best job prospects in years, in an economy where employers are having to compete for good, well-educated employees. It’s my hope that they can enter this workforce without a huge debt burden hanging over their heads.