For years, college students have listened to their elders’ stories about how they worked their way through college with summer jobs and part-time work during the school year.
Now, students are saying: Make it possible for us to do that, too.
A University of Washington student group is asking lawmakers and university administrators to increase student aid, change the way it is distributed and lower college costs enough that Washington students could work their way through college.
“What we feel has been underrecognized is the amount a student directly contributes to their education,” said Michael Kutz, president of student government at the UW.
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The UW student report, “Meet Us in the Middle: Affordability for the Working Student,” has a unique student focus that assumes many students will put themselves through college, with little help from their parents. But because the cost is now so high, it’s no longer possible to do that without incurring high student debt.
Skyrocketing tuition has hit low- and middle-income students particularly hard. Low-income students rarely receive enough financial aid to pay all the bills, and middle-income students often just miss the aid cutoff, yet their parents often don’t have the money to help, students say.
Currently, students whose family income is about $80,000 a year and above rarely qualify for aid.
It’s estimated that there is about $1 trillion in outstanding student-loan debt in the U.S., and some economists believe it may be putting a damper on the housing market, among other effects.
Including living expenses, the cost of a year of school for an in-state student living on the UW-Seattle campus is about $27,000.
“College is not affordable until students from every income group can afford the full cost of education by working,” Kutz said.
A student who works 40 hours a week in the summer and 20 a week throughout the school year can earn only about $11,500, before taxes, students estimate. At the state’s minimum wage, currently $9.32 an hour, a student would have to work 54 hours a week for a year to pay for one year at the UW.
That equation will change when Seattle’s $15 minimum-wage law takes effect, but Kutz pointed out that many UW students don’t live in Seattle during the summer, when they earn an important chunk of their college money.
And not all working students work in Seattle; some live at home outside the city, work near home and commute to school.
“They are really raising an important issue … which is that, not all that long ago, a student could work a summer job and some part-time work, and pay for college,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who is vice chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. “This highlights that you can’t possibly do that today.”
Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, called student-loan debt a threat to the American dream. He wants to see tuition at state schools cut nearly in half: “The model we need to get back to is the no-debt model.”
Tuition has gone up dramatically since 2008 because Washington lawmakers cut funding to higher education by about 50 percent, after state revenues fell because of the recession.
Washington’s public colleges and universities made up the difference with steep tuition increases; the state had the second-largest tuition increases in the nation between fiscal years 2008 and 2013.
But even though some lawmakers are sympathetic, it’s unclear whether the state will have enough revenue next year to help. The state is under court order to fully fund K-12 education, and many worry that an increase in K-12 funding will mean less money, not more, for higher education.
Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, who heads the House Higher Education Committee, favors fully funding the State Need Grant, the state’s primary financial-aid resource. Last year, about 30,000 students who qualified for financial aid did not receive it because the state ran out of money.
But Seaquist also believes there are higher-education innovations that could make college less expensive, and wants the state to do a thorough review of how student aid is distributed.
Baumgartner, vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, believes there are cuts to be made in wasteful state spending, and savings in contracting out some government services. He also thinks colleges and universities could be more thrifty.
“The public is highly skeptical of highly paid (college) administrators … and the sheer amount of capital projects” on campuses, said Baumgartner.
Pollett favors rolling back tuition to a level that’s 10 percent of the state’s median household income, and thinks support for higher education must go hand in hand with more support for K-12 education.
“It makes no sense to increase the support for K-12 education, creating a pipeline through which more students make it through without dropping out, and when they reach the end of that pipeline, try to squeeze through a tiny hole for higher-education access,” he said.
Kutz said the student committee heard moving stories from classmates about how they were coping with increased college costs. One student described how living off-campus, commuting to the UW and working to get through school was such a strain that it didn’t feel like college at all — more like a job.
The student report highlights a 192 percent increase in the amount of federal parent-loan debt issued to UW parents between 2007 and 2012. And in a recent report, the UW Counseling Center said 33 percent of students who sought counseling said they were stressed by financial worries.
Russell Wiita, a sophomore who helped write the report, is trying to work his way through school. He worked 15 to 17 hours a week during the school year and will work full time in summer but has still had to take out $12,000 in loans so far and expects to have about $25,000 in loans by the time he graduates.
Wiita, who grew up in Sultan, received some financial aid his first year at the UW, but the package shrunk dramatically the next year — even though his family’s income didn’t change.
“We don’t just want a free ride … but we do want to get it to where a student who really wants to can work their way through school,” Wiita said.
The paper recommends two policy changes: that the state fully fund the State Need Grant, and that the UW change the way financial aid is allocated so that more gets to middle-income students.
But that’s only a starting point, Kutz said. Lowering tuition rates, for example, could go far to help.
Kutz will be succeeded next year as president of UW student government by Christina Xiao, who is also working her way through school — 25 hours a week during the school year and a summer work schedule of 50 to 60 hours a week.
“We need a fundamental shift in our financial-aid model, and how we think of financial aid,” Xiao said. “It’s really important to keep telling that narrative, that students can’t really afford to work through school.”
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.