College Affordability: Now Is the Time

Student loan paperwork
Student loan paperwork

In real estate, it's location, location, location.

For most college students, it's affordability, affordability, affordability.

Although people will agree that the value of a good education is priceless, it doesn't mean that we should peddle education at outrageous prices. We certainly can't compete globally if we price education out of the range of even the "average" American, let alone those living in poverty. I am the president of Saint Paul College, a public institution serving the urban core, with student demographics showing an average age of 28, with a 54.5 percent female and 58.7 percent minority population. Many of our students are first generation college students, supporting their families, some juggling two or three jobs and trying to better themselves and their lives with the promise that a good education brings. Even with some of the lowest tuition rates in our state, it still is difficult for many Saint Paul College students to pay for tuition.

When we're seeing statistics out there about how Americans owe more money for student loans than they owe on their credit cards -- that should make most of us stop dead in our tracks. We're not talking about people wanting to buy luxury items -- we're talking about students wanting to pursue a college education, something that will provide endless benefits to themselves, their families, their futures, and our country. I firmly believe that obtaining a higher education pays off in the long run. It is one way of expanding one's potential and capacity to contribute, and the bottom line -- increasing employability.

I'm not advocating a free ride for a college education. In my mind that would lessen the value of pursuing higher education. I took any kind of job I could get to help pay my way through school. It made me realize the importance of going to college, of furthering my education. I was an immigrant, living on my own in my new country, pursuing my dreams in a democracy. I worked hard like so many of my classmates to make ends meet. At times, I had to make some tough choices to attain my goals. I do believe that helping to pay for one's college education adds meaning to life's lessons learned and adds value and context while in higher pursuits. But it's unconscionable to think that just about the only way for someone to go to college full-time is to go into debt with student loans.

College affordability is not a new topic. Three decades ago, three out of ten individuals pursuing higher education started at a community college. Today, almost five in ten individuals pursuing their higher education dreams choose community colleges as their college of choice. Now more than ever we need to keep college tuition costs within reach -- and that would be for the many, and not just "the few."

College affordability was the focus of a recent roundtable discussion held at Saint Paul College on April 2, 2013. This roundtable discussion was attended by Governor Mark Dayton and Senator Al Franken. Also in attendance were Mr. Larry Pogemiller, Director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, Dr. Paul Pribbenow, President of Augsburg College, and Mr. Christopher Halling, Director of Financial Aid from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, and myself. Students from Saint Paul College, the University of Minnesota, Hamline University, and Augsburg College took center stage in this roundtable discussion as they spoke of their own unique educational journeys, and how they have been impacted by the cost of college.

Students spoke about the availability of grants and loans, as well as how scholarships and community partners have influenced their educational opportunities. Their access to higher education would not have been possible without the assistance of financial aid. Community organizations and scholarships were also significant in shaping the educational future of many of the students. I am proud of all of our student participants because they brought the affordability message home in such a concise and heartfelt manner.

Both Governor Dayton and Senator Franken expressed how higher education is essential to the future prosperity of Minnesota. Senator Franken discussed his support of Financial Aid reform that would make it easier to compare financial aid packages from different schools, and how the government can better support students to reduce the debt load that currently burdens many college graduates. The Governor concurred and stated that his budget requests for higher education aim to make college more accessible and affordable for all students. That is what we at Saint Paul College are counting on.

Saint Paul College is extremely fortunate to be located in the state of Minnesota. The Minnesota legislature supports college affordability efforts and they know our campus well. Both the house and senate are supportive of making college more accessible for part-time working students by providing State Grant assistance to this group, which was not done previously. On a national level, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar just introduced an immigration bill to boost high-tech innovation, known as the "I-squared Bill." Co-sponsors of the bill were Senators Hatch, Rubio and Coons. The I-squared Bill is about encouraging engineers and inventors and innovators and entrepreneurs to work here in this country, and will eventually pump money back into STEM education. We all must work together to improve educational and work opportunities at every level.

We will continue to do our part to be as efficient and effective in our delivery of higher education as we can. We have that obligation and that promise as a public institution. It is our civic responsibility and social obligation that we give our students every opportunity to become well-rounded citizens and well-prepared for today's employer needs. We are committed to advancing the competitiveness of Minnesota's workforce, increasing access and affordability, and accelerating completion. Our institutions promote the ideal democratic value and opportunity of higher education, with access for ALL, regardless of our students' race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

College affordability -- now is the time!