Over the last several weeks, our area college students have returned to school to resume their studies for the fall semester. I know that their parents are very proud of them as are we all. Indeed, a good number of our young people spent their summer either working to pay off their student loans or to save for college costs, many on just the minimum wage.
Tuition has risen 40 percent in the last 10 years at four-year public colleges and universities, after inflation, while family incomes have remained basically flat. Many states, including Virginia have cut their spending on higher education by roughly 20 percent per-student since the recession, rather than expanding their investments when everything was cheap.
Too many 44th district (Mount Vernon and Lee) families struggle with student debt, and the problem has reached crisis levels across the nation. Total student debt in our economy has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and now exceeds $1.2 trillion. Nearly 7 out of every 10 new graduates of four-year colleges are in debt, and these indebted graduates carry an average balance of nearly $30,000. Student debt has surpassed credit card debt, car loan debt, and home equity lines of credit to be the second largest source of consumer debt.
For students trying to work their way through college, especially at restaurants, the tipped wage is only $2.13 per hour, leaving people who work hard at the mercy of another person’s generosity. This is unreliable and leaves low-income workers of all ages without stability in their own personal budgets.
College used to be affordable. That’s not the case today. It used to be that if you worked hard during the summers at the minimum wage, you could pay for your college tuition, books and supplies and still have money left over for your social life. Now, these low-skill summer jobs do not even cover in-state students’ tuition. Regrettably, the minimum wage is stuck in the past.
While many young people from the 44th district are in their first weeks of college, diligently studying and working towards pursuing exciting careers, others are rising juniors and seniors at Mount Vernon, West Potomac or area private high schools wondering which colleges they can afford and whether it is even worth it to apply to some of the out-of-state schools with the higher costs. It’s a big deal when you consider that 87 percent of West Potomac High School 2016 grads went onto higher education.
For most people, paying for college is a substantial investment. Luckily, there are many tools to help students save money for college as well as ways to find available loans. Some of those tools can be found in the online web address below. Students also should talk with their counselors at school; they often have ideas and resources helpful as you prepare your strategy to cover the costs of an education. For example, last year’s West Potomac High School class accepted 5.1 million in scholarship dollars. Financial aid comes from many different sources and, in most cases, requires completion of at least the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Visit the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV)'s Tuition & Aid section for additional information at http://www.schev.edu/index/students-and-parents/pay.
Washington D.C. and Maryland have higher minimum wages than the Commonwealth of Virginia, so certainly we could raise the minimum wage without "losing our competitive edge.” We are now losing good workers to the District of Columbia and Maryland who can make significantly more there than they can make here in Virginia for the same work, and anybody trying to pay off their student loans will be forced to find work in another state.
Our college students and those bound for college are already worrying about their grades. Let’s not continue to add to their anxiety with how to pay for school on their meager summer earnings or first entry level job upon graduation. We need to raise the minimum wage.