SOUTH BURLINGTON — Standing at a podium in the Sheraton Hotel’s conference room, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Thursday that Congress needs to do more to reduce student debt and bring down the cost of a college education.
Leahy delivered that message to a receptive audience. Seated before him were 400 high school students, many of whom hoped to follow in Leahy’s footsteps as the first in their families to attend college.
Outstanding student debt in the U.S. has surpassed $1.3 trillion, according to MarketWatch.
Students from all over New England were in Burlington Thursday to celebrate national TRIO day. TRIO isn’t an acronym, though its sponsors capitalize each letter. It’s shorthand for a trio of interwoven federal programs designed to increase disadvantaged students access to higher education.
The flagship of the three programs is Upward Bound, which offers high schoolers academic enrichment programs on weekends and during the summer on college campuses.
Upward Bound has its roots in a Johnson-era anti-poverty program, said Rick Williams, with the Upward Bound program at Lyndon State College. There are four Upward Bound program sites in Vermont helping more than 300 students prepare for college.
The other two programs, Talent Search and Gear Up, are aimed at providing low-income students with college counseling and SAT prep courses. The three programs bring more than $8.5 million into Vermont annually serving thousands of students, according to Williams.
Leahy told the crowd that he wouldn’t have made it through law school without student loans. He worked hard to pay them off, but “at least I wasn’t burdened with a debt that would make it impossible to start a family afterward.”
Earlier this week Gov. Peter Shumlin highlighted the disconnect between Vermont’s above average high school graduation rate, and its below average rate of students moving on to postsecondary education. Shumlin is touting a proposal for universal college savings accounts for Vermont children.
Leahy said Congress also needs to take action on making higher education more widely attainable. He laid out several steps Thursday that he said would make progress toward that goal.
First, Congress should pass legislation making community college free, a priority for President Barack Obama in his final year; second, Pell grants should be increased to meet the actual cost of college; and finally, young people should be able to refinance their student loans.
“It is ridiculous that they’re going to be burdened all their life because they can’t refinance. You can refinance your house; you can refinance your vehicle; you ought to be able to refinance a student loan,” Leahy said.
Pascal Siki Wa Siki is a first generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic. The Winooski High School junior got involved with UVM Upward Bound program because he wants to attend college and study to be a civil engineer, he said.
Siki Wa Siki said he plans to apply to many of the technical institutes in the northeast including the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Civil engineering appeals to him because he wants to design and build projects that people will use in their daily lives. He’s currently working on designing a greenhouse for his school, that he hopes will actually be built in a year or two.
Siki Wa Siki said he worries some about being able to afford college. He hopes that his grades will allow him to earn a scholarship, and said Upward Bound has helped him prepare for the application process.
Leahy’s message made him optimistic that he may be able to attend college without being saddled with years of debt, he said. Smiling, Siki Wa Siki said maybe the same would be true for his children if he has a family one day.