Right now, Congress is thinking about rewriting the Higher Education Act (HEA), the massive law that provides financial aid to students and families.
It is a rare opportunity to take lessons learned from campuses across the country, and use them to improve educational opportunities for all students
Institutions that provide a high quality higher education can make all the difference in the world to low- and middle-income students who are seeking a better future.
As president of Seward County Community College in Liberal, Kansas, I see this every day. We serve the rural working-class residents of our community on the southwestern border of Kansas and Oklahoma.
Our goal is simply to help students get good jobs and move into the middle class. One such student is Jose Sandoval, a single father who holds three jobs. He was able to complete his certificate in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), thanks to instructor Chris Hickman, who worked out a schedule that allowed Sandoval to come to class once a week from his home in a rural community 40 miles away.
He completed an associate’s degree applied science, and is now fully employed, dreaming of going back to school to get a bachelor’s degree. His son, Gavin, 9, wants to go to college and become a lawyer, and then a judge.
We have made our school a reflection of our community and meet our students where they are. We’ve worked with local employers to offer programs that meet their employment needs. And we’re affordable. County residents pay $99 per credit hour, and full-time students pay less than $4,000, including books and supplies. But many of our students still need help. More than 80 percent are low-income students, who need federal aid to pursue their education. Some have to take time off from school because family obligations require them to get a job, while others face parental pressures to work – not study.
Cesar Saquic is one such student, whose dad told him, “We came here to work, not go to school,” and insisted he take a factory job after graduation from high school. Cesar secretly enrolled in a certificate program, working nights and coming to daytime classes to earn an industry certification and get a different job. When he showed his first paycheck to his father, it was larger than any his dad had earned. His dad’s response? “Tell your brothers to go to college, too!” This is why I’ve been following the progress of The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity Through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act (H.R. 4508) so closely.
The last thing my students need is Congress building barriers and setting back the progress we’ve made. Yet that is what this act does.
The bill would cut nearly $15 billion from student aid programs. It does so by eliminating Supplemental Educational Opportunity (SEOG) grants; by eliminating subsidized loans for low-income students; and by doubling the cost to Seward to participate in the work-study program. In addition, it eliminates the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program that helps teachers, law enforcement officers, healthcare and other professionals balance the demands of the specialized training needed to enter and succeed in those fields with the relatively low salaries such service work offers.
Cuts like these mean fewer and fewer of our community will be able to afford coursework or skills training. It means more students will have to borrow, and they’ll pay more to do so. Ultimately, if this bill is approved, I fear that too many will be trapped at their current income and education level, with little opportunity for self-improvement. That means fewer skilled workers for local businesses and industries throughout the region.
There are some things in the bill that will actually simplify my job as president, but there’s far more in it that will make my students’ lives harder. That’s a tradeoff I don’t want — and one Congress shouldn’t make.