Leahy: Congress must make college affordable

Patrick Leahy
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaks to high school students Thursday at the Sheraton Hotel in South Burlington about student debt and the cost of a college education. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

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.

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  • Tony Ketting

    Senator Leahy is just wrong on this. While allowing students to refinance their debt should be done immediately, increasing Pell grants or any grants will simply cause colleges to increase their tuition. That has been going on all along and everyone that studies the issue realizes this. Also as far as making community college “free” I will argue that many will end up with useless degrees which will not provide them the economic benefit they envision. Not all degrees provide the skills that businesses are seeking. Furthermore flooding the market with more college grads will drive the need for students to obtain advanced degrees as they seek to differentiate themselves from the competition. I see it happening all around me in my workplace now. An undergrad degree is not as valuable as it was when I went to school. Now a masters degree is what an undergrad degree used to be. If a college education is less valuable than the cost, students should not enroll and the price tag would come down. When the government treats all degrees equally and subsidizes them equally the price tag will continue to increase. Limit work visas and businesses may need to increase their pay for professional skills. This changes the cost/value equation. Also governments should provide more loan forgiveness for some professions needed in underserved geographies. Ask any plumber and you hear there is currently a shortage of young people coming into the profession in Vermont. How about encouraging more to enter some of the trades where the work force is rapidly aging? Senator Leahy has offered no real solution. Typical of an out of touch politician who needs to retire

    • Paul Richards

      “Ask any plumber and you hear there is currently a shortage of young people coming into the profession in Vermont.”
      This is a huge problem for the trades. More people are retiring out of the trades than what are coming in. This is partly a result of the guidance counselors pushing college, any college as the end all. It’s also a general perception that has been hatched by the liberal elites that only a college degree, any college degree can be a worthy path which has only allowed the liberal professors to brainwash their subjects into foot solders for the cause.
      A plumber’s license is worth a lot more than some fluffy degree that there is no market for and a plumber can go to work in virtually any state they want. The demand is high. They can get their license with very, very minimal costs and NO student loans. When they get their license they will be making a “living wage”. But…it’s just not cool like sitting at a computer all day turning into a bump on a log.
      The government has done anything and everything to “make college affordable” (now they want it free) and hatch new programs for manufacturing and healthcare but have done little to nothing for the building trades except open the borders to flood our country with illegal roofers and sheet- rockers.
      The same old, same old give away programs put forth by the liberals do not work. We need term limits to rid our government of this type of dysfunctional thinking.

      • Chuck Shannon

        I totally agree. Vermont has been spending millions on High Schools preparing kids for college. We need to refocus on trade schools now. Having kids ready for a career may keep some of them here. Right now kids are going to colleges in other states and not coming back. Vermont needs plumbers, electricians, carpenters, auto mechanics. .. list is endless.

        • Doug Hoffer

          I agree that the Trades are a good fit for some (and we certainly can’t outsource their work). However, it is not uncommon for tradespeople to seek work out of state because Vermont wages are comparatively low. For example, here are the median hourly wages for some New England states (Source: BLS, OES 2014). Huge differences.

          NY $31.18
          MA $29.30
          CT $26.94
          VT $21.28

          NY $32.15
          MA $31.48
          CT $27.67
          VT $22.27

          MA $26.29
          NY $24.66
          CT $23.75
          VT $19.41

          • Neil Johnson

            Vermont is also making it very hard to be an independent contractor. They want you classified as an employee. Vermont is set up to be a park for the wealthy. There is no concern or developement for the state to become a full functioning state.

  • David Bresett

    Leahy has become seriously out of touch with reality. Take the banks out of the situation. Give the loans through either the post office our local government. The sad fact of subsidizing banks with federal money, and than allowing said banks to up the interest rate, should stop now.

    • Neil Johnson

      Break up the monopolistic higher education system and allow testing for degrees. People could read and study on the their own and test out, like lawyers who have read the law in Vermont. These associate professors could actually make a living if they ran their own classes instead of being the slave to tenured professors and expensive institutions. Check out what they are paid. $10 per hour isn’t uncommon. Boy then you’d see price drop, probably 70%! Take an old hotel, few associate professors and you could educate people very reasonably. It’s all about protecting another monopoly.

  • Kyle Williams

    Stop paying to go to expensive schools. Put a couple years in at a community college. Live at home and go to a lower priced State College. Put a few years in the military and have the GI bill pay for it. Work for a company the has some educational benefits. There are still some companies that will pay for you to take classes if they are job related. Those are all fairly easy options, it is how I ended up paying for all of my College expenses.

  • Dan Carver

    How many student go to UVM tuition free because their parents work there? If it was 1% of the student population, or 100 students, there’s $ 2 MM of cost that tuition paying students have to cover.
    The part that is absolutely insane is that it is a tax-free benefit. When I worked at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, I was taxed on the cost of the coffee I got for free as part of my benefits; the state and Uncle Sam squeezed every penny out of me.
    By comparison, allowing $20,000 of tuition tax-free, seems like catering to special interests to me! Will there be a Digger article on this angle of the cost of tuition?

    • Student debt has changed the course if history in America.

  • Rep. Gary Viens

    Must be an election year, Leahy is running around the state and I smell bacon……..

    • Robert Lehmert

      And you aren’t sure that this topic is worth discussing?

  • A.L. Jillson

    Maybe if Sen Leahy would stop supporting the pork-fat, underperforming, billions-of-dollars-over-budget F35 fiasco, we could afford to finance our children’s education, as well as investing in our country’s infrastructure, health car needs, and support for our military veterans!

  • Neil Johnson

    First we need financial education in high school so people are educated enough to know what is going on. Perhaps they will learn that nothing is ever free. Street Drug dealers and politicians love to give away “free” stuff. There are not competency tests…..so you may have a free degree, but does it earn you any more money? Then why should society be spending all it’s resources and time to promote this? To protect their monopoly. Higher education in bed with government backed student loans…now we just pay the loans and teachers again come up smelling like a rose. Having some skin the game is a good thing. There are so many ways to improve education. But free is never free, it’s usually the start of a big con job.

  • Bruce Marshall

    Senator Leahy has been in power for a long long time, and he well knows that debt expansion has been the way America been forced to do business, by politicians who are beholden to the interests of interest as regards the interest of the General Welfare.

    As such I regards the good Senator’s sentiments concerning this crisis as nothing but good political pablum, which is ok because he does demonstrate a level of caring.

    Caring is fine, but the good Senator will not rectify this symptom of a greater economic breakdown problem unless he steps up to the plate and recognizes a certain fact, which
    he well knows-that the plate is empty.

    Now what I mean by that is that Senator Leahy in fact does know the solution to our present crisis, which is established law, 7 U.S.C. section 602 which calls for the compensation to Agriculture to be at a price known as Parity.

    Without Parity we end ups stealing our daily bread, subsidized by a governmental welfare system for agriculture that has destroyed the family farm but not the mega corporate farm.
    Senator Leahy knows this, or he needs to reread Unforngiven…The American Economic System SOLD for Debt and War by Charles Walters to understand what is what.

    Underpayment to the farmer causes a loss in real income on what is real wealth. A cheap food policy will not support an advancing industrial nation, because such an economy requires that there be income sufficient from the production of real wealth, that serves as the basis for economic activity. This is the reality of the historical actuarial record.

    The Great Depression was a caused by the fact that wealth producers were not making enough money to stay in business. We can thank Calvin Coolidge for this, for had he
    not stopped McNary-Hagin the productive powers of the nation, farm and factory would have been able to keep going.

    This was recognized by FDR, and Parity is what the Agricultural Adjustment Act was intended to put into place. Unfortunately FDR went along with those powers of finance who told him that price could only be set by the free market of supply and demand, and hence the Guberment destroyed farmers wealth, dumping milk, killing cattle, to try to bring the price up. Well that did not work to well, and it was not until Hitler came along and started sinking
    ships in the Atlantic, that FDR and the establishment got scared and finally passed legislation that satisfied law, with the passage of bills collectively referred to colloquially as the Steagall Amendment which basically established that the markets for Agricultural products work at a range of between 90-11% of the Parity Price established for such

    The issue is that the system worked. Not only was the war effort supplied, but this is what really stopped the Great Depression but very few realize this because everyone looks at things from the point of view of either Keynsian or Austrian propaganda, rather than the economic reality which was that Parity had produced the not only the necessary wealth to
    fight a world war, but that wealth was properly monetized such that farmers had the income
    profit to keep the economy going. This is the record. There was not post war recession because of Parity.

    For every dollar raised through Agriculture, seven dollars are found at the end of the year
    in the national income. When you underpay raw materials production, you are robbing the nation of earned income. Credit is not earned income, but rather something that is a debt, not profit. Yes credit can be useful, but what is more useful is to properly monetize wealth production such that one is not dependent upon credit to keep things going.

    So yes we need to understand how tuition inflation is part of an institutional inflation, where the colleges are making out on this which has become a monopolization upon people’s future.

    What we have with the college’s, the bloated administrations, tuitions and all is merely a great whale to feed more debt expansion of an economy that is based upon debt expansion.

    The system will not last for it has already lead to war, war to keep the petrodollar afloat, or the windmill dollar afloat….on destroyed ridgelines….

    I digress, but here is the reality an relevant analogy. Senator Leahy supports a system that has utilized the ” Farm Bills” which are subsidies such that a “Cheap Food” actually violates U.S. Law that established ” Parity” and violates good economic sense. The question being how is a farm successful if it has to borrow money in order to buy seeds for next season’s crop, which is a recurring normality or rather insanity that points to a basic fact: The farmer is not getting a fair price in balance with the needs of the rest of the economy.

    To balance the wages of industrial workers, where are they, and the service economy, you know lawyers and teachers, etc, you can not pay a rate that is 65% less than what brings balance or parity.

    Yes everyone take a 65% drop in wages and then you get the idea of why the earned income engine or our economy does not work, and thus why we are all dependent upon debt, credit expansion, to stay afloat……

    I do not think that university administrators and faculty want to take a 65% pay cut, nor will politicians…..

    But not to worry, the F-35 will keep things going…..

  • I applaud these students for taking the steps towards go to and being successful in college. What a special event that focused on something that so many students need to focus on.. their education and the steps they need to take to go to and be successful in college.

    The TRIO programs have such a long history of success. They not only help students become more aware of the college and financial aid application process, but they actually help students academically prepare for college. Also, three cheers to VSAC and ASA for supporting such an event.

  • Steven Farnham

    Bernie is campaigning for free community college AND free state colleges and Universities. Leahy (who is rooting for Hillary) want’s to steal Bernie’s thunder by offering a watered-down version of Bernie’s idea before people get it in their heads that Bernie’s plan is better. It’s that same old lame Democrat argument that “half-a-loaf” is better than no loaf. Why not go for the full loaf for a change, eh?

    Leahy’s assertion of hard work to pay off his college debt is completely disingenuous. College was much more affordable when Leahy was a college kid. Grants (not loans) were easily accessible, and Leahy chose an extraordinarily lucrative profession. Our Senior Senator has done a lot of good work, but I think his argument here is pretty lame.