PHILADELPHIA — Free college has become the banner headline for Democrats in an effort to attract the energetic, debt-ridden millennials who flocked to the Bernie Sanders campaign.
But what about the 8 million adult college students struggling to complete a degree, and the millions of other adults who wish they could go to college but can’t afford it? Most current tuition assistance programs are aimed at recent high school graduates. Yet a majority (60 percent) of 25- to 64-year-olds do not hold at least an associate degree, and the numbers rise to 71 percent and 79 percent for African-Americans and Latinos, respectively.
While Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both attracted many frustrated adults who feel left behind by the current economy, neither political party has provided many concrete ideas about how to help them catch up, even while admitting that having a college degree is often crucial to getting out of poverty.
Free in-state college tuition at public colleges, proposed by Hillary Clinton, would no doubt help. But conversations with the forgotten majority of degree-less adults show that the solutions are more complicated than a one-size-fits-some policy.
“For adults, the issue is broader than making college tuition-free,” said Hadass Sheffer, president of the Graduate! Network, which provides support for adults trying to get a degree. “Most adults who have dropped out already have loans; they may need to go part-time; and they need to replace any income they may lose from their jobs.”
At the Community College of Philadelphia, just a 15-minute drive from where the Democrats are meeting, close to half the students are older than 25, and 75 percent go to classes part-time. Nearly two-thirds are low-income and 18 percent default on their loans.
LaCountess Ingram, 45, is determined not to become another statistic. Even though a federal Pell grant covers her tuition at the college, she still needed loans to cover other school and living expenses.
“I raised my children, I worked, but I wasn’t able to move up in my company because I didn’t have a degree,” said Ingram, who has four children, ages 18 to 26. “But I know that when I come out, there’s a bear waiting for me and that’s student loans.”
Like other adults, she said that having to juggle multiple loans, at different interest rates, made it even more confusing to figure out how to afford to continue. She also noted that income-based repayment plans often look only at income, without taking into account costs that younger students might not have, such as car payments, mortgages and child care.
“You want to move up, you want to do better and you know education is the thing you need, but there has to be a better way than all this debt,” Ingram said.
For adults with children at home, the situation can be a juggling act.
Ssire Ivy, 26, is currently enrolled at St. Louis Community College. She lives in Jennings, the town next to Ferguson, with her fiance, her 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. She left home at 17 and joined Job Corps, where she earned a data entry certificate, but she couldn’t find jobs that paid more than $9 an hour. Her fiance also works full-time, making $9 an hour.
Still, she feels that without a college degree, they will never get above water — or live in a school district where she feels her children will be safe (she tried to use her Section 8 housing voucher to find housing in other districts but she hasn’t found a landlord willing to take it). So she has cut back her hours to part time and enrolled in classes. She got a voucher through the college to help with child-care costs, and Pell covered her tuition, but it wasn’t enough.
“I tried to go back to work full time in January, but I couldn’t get through my classes,” Ivy said in a phone interview. “I was basically up all night and day.”
She is now facing $9,000 in loans, but she made the Dean’s list. She’s applying for scholarships hoping to get a bachelor’s degree, but isn’t sure it will be possible.
“I’ve always been poor. If I could be an executive assistant or an office manager, I would love that,” said Ivy. “I just want a normal job where I could go in, clock my hours and come home and take care of my kids.”
Ivy’s sentiments were echoed by many people wandering the halls of the Democratic National Convention this week.
Puja Datta is a delegate from Columbus, Ohio, who got her associate degree at Columbus State Community College while working full time. She was able to take classes because her employer offers reimbursement of up to $5,000 for college courses.
“I started working full time right after high school,” said Datta, 28. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want debt. They want you to know exactly what you want to do at 18, and most of us don’t.”
She’s now at Franklin University, slowly working toward her bachelor’s degree. “It’s tiring,” she said, smiling. “But I’m going to keep going. I don’t think education should be something only for the wealthy.”
Eileen Campbell, 67, came from a family where no one went to college, and she was determined to break that cycle.
“I worked my whole life in health care, and I always wanted to get my degree — I took classes for 25 years,” said Campbell. “I just had to keep starting and stopping. I had to take care of my kids, and then my parents got ill, and then my husband lost a series of jobs and got cancer, but I never lost the desire.”
It wasn’t until after she retired that she graduated, in 2015, from LaSalle University, in Philadelphia — magna cum laude.
Now she is watching her daughter try to make it. She got out of a difficult marriage, moved back home with her two little boys and went back to school to become a registered nurse. She’s now working and doing her best to make her loan payments of $1,000 per month.
“It’s heart-breaking,” said Campbell. “She’s doing a beautiful job with her children, but I hate to see her struggling.”
Campbell is convinced that if politicians could get beyond slogans and make college more affordable for more people, it could make a difference.
“It’s not just a question of motivation,” she said. “If it wasn’t so burdensome, I know a lot more people would do it.”