A single Toppenish mother of three said she tapped into 18 years worth of retirement savings to pursue a degree.
A Tri-City man said he was dropped from his classes one quarter after he failed to make a tuition payment on time as he struggled to make ends meet after his father died suddenly from cancer.
And a Pasco High School senior’s parents are already working extra hours and planning to tap their savings to pay for him and his brother to get an education.
It’s those stories, and many others, that U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said Wednesday at Columbia Basin College led her to introduce legislation that, if approved, would make community college tuition-free, allow student loans to be refinanced at lower rates and take other steps to reduce the burden of earning a college education.
“I’ve heard from people who are afraid they can’t afford tuition next semester,” Murray told about two dozen in a meeting room in CBC’s HUB building, adding “a highly educated workforce helps our economy grow from the middle out, not the top down.”
There’s no one specifically on board yet with my legislation who’s a Republican but I believe we’ll get there.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray
Murray, a Democrat, acknowledged that it will be a challenge to get her legislation, In The Red Act, through an increasingly partisan Congress. But she’s optimistic, particularly as several states, including Oregon, already have taken steps to make it easier for students to earn degrees from community colleges.
“There’s no one specifically on board yet with my legislation who’s a Republican but I believe we’ll get there,” she told the Herald.
The students who spoke at the news conference said their experiences demonstrate the needs of the many others facing similar or worse circumstances. They also know that while they’ve had it tough, they know in the end they made the right decision to be in the classroom.
“Despite the challenges, I continue to believe that having a college education is the best way to get ahead,” said Selene Zapata, a single mother of three and student at Heritage University in Toppenish.
Despite the challenges, I continue to believe that having a college education is the best way to get ahead.
Selene Zapata, Toppenish student
Murray’s bill incorporates a number of Democratic proposals, such as permanently tying the value of Pell grants to inflation and raising the maximum amount the federal government provides by $1,300 by the 2026-27 academic year. Another provision would allow people to refinance their student loans at lower rates, potentially saving borrowers an average of $1,896.
One of the biggest savings the legislation offers, though, would be making the first two years of enrollment at community colleges tuition-free.
Tuition at junior colleges averages $3,800 a year nationally and eliminating that cost would make it easier for students to earn an associate degree — the first half of a bachelor’s — or complete workforce training without incurring crippling debt.
Oregon and Tennesse and the city of Detroit already have similar plans, and Kentucky lawmakers are currently considering it. CBC administrators also haves spoken in favor of a system that would help students cover costs above their means.
“We can’t turn our backs on families,” Murray said.
$1,300 increase to the maximum amount federal government provides
$1,900 estimated savings after refinancing to lower rates
While focused on reducing tuition costs, it also would make colleges and universities accountable for making sure students graduate with valuable degrees and experience. And it seeks to pay for its aid to students through closing tax loopholes, such as preventing corporations from writing off performance-based executive pay and taxing carried interest on hedge funds.
Zapata had to turn down a full-ride scholarship to Boise State University when she finished high school decades ago because she wasn’t a U.S. citizen, she said. But after working for nearly 20 years in translation services and compliance for special education in two Yakima Valley school districts, she knew she needed a degree.
A Pell grant helped cover costs but not the price of daycare for her 2-year-old son and other expenses. That led her to draw down the retirement fund she’d built up while working.
CBC student Gerald Paule moved to the Tri-Cities and enrolled at the college at his father’s invitation to help him with the cost of school. But his father was suddenly diagnosed with cancer last summer and died a few months later. Paule now works as a tutor and for an accounting firm and will graduate this spring, but he’s had to let bills slip as he prepares to enroll at Central Washington University.
And for Pasco High senior Donaldo Ramos, he and his family know that accomplishing his dreams will require money and that means great sacrifices.
“For most of us, we’re looking at 20 years to pay off this debt,” he said.
Twenty-seven other Democratic senators have signed on to the In The Red Act, including Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and senior California Democrat Barbara Boxer.
Murray said she and her six siblings personally benefited from federal student aid, as their father fell ill from multiple sclerosis and was unable to work afterward as they were growing up. Higher education is even more important now in the current economy and the government needs to step up for its citizens, she said.