Washington college students now rack up more debt than ever before to pay tuition, while the state gives less and less money to higher education.
And yet, the age group that includes most college students has the lowest voter turnout of all sectors of the population.
If students are unhappy about state higher education budgets, they need to vote -- that was the message delivered Thursday by three speakers at Washington State University Tri-Cities.
The event titled "The Importance of Voting" featured Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland; Fran Forgette, a Kennewick lawyer who sits on WSU's board of regents; and Shirah Thietje, director of legislative affairs for the Richland campus' student government.
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Gov. Chris Gregoire last week sent a list of budget cut options to the Legislature, to be considered during the upcoming special session. To cut $2 billion out of the current biennial budget, the governor marked a number of cuts on that list as preferred options.
The preferred cut for higher education was an overall reduction of 15 percent, or about $160 million, from all colleges and universities statewide.
Money for higher education already had been cut in half over the past three years, Forgette said. Such cuts should not come during a recession, he said.
"This is entirely the wrong time to cut higher ed and charge our students more," Forgette said.
Haler, the minority leader of the House committee for higher education, criticized those in Olympia who "think higher ed is discretionary funding."
He told students to send letters and emails to legislators, demanding that money for colleges not be cut.
"We need to have your voices heard," Haler said.
Those who think their voices won't make a difference in an election should remember that Gregoire won the 2004 election by 129 votes, Thietje told the small crowd.
Only 9 percent of registered voters in Washington in the 2010 election were 18 to 24 years old, Thietje said. Most college students are in that age group.
The national average debt for students paying in-state tuition now is $30,000, Thietje said.
The student government conducted a survey on the Richland campus. About 10 percent of all students responded.
Out of those responses, two-thirds said they could only afford to pay their tuition because of some kind of financial aid, which usually means student loans.
Almost all students surveyed -- 96 percent -- said they struggle in their private lives because of tuition increases. Those struggles affect their families, work situations and studies, they said.
Students take on more paid work and more classes per quarter to deal with rising tuition.
Many struggle to afford basic necessities and many have taken on large amounts of debt.
"What we're getting out of our state is debt and stress," Thietje said.