Education has been the quickest and most effective catalyst to achieving the American Dream for countless Americans. Getting ahead almost always starts with getting an education, and statistics show that today is no different. The average starting salary for high school graduates is $30,000 per year, while the starting salary for college graduates is $52,000 per year. But at a time when a college degree has become more and more necessary to achieve the American Dream, paying for that college degree has become harder and harder for working families across the country.
Every year since 1983, increases in the cost of higher education have outpaced the general cost of living. The average debt load upon graduation has skyrocketed, and the average cost for a private college education has topped $114,000. College students today are graduating with a mortgage-sized debt, but no house to show for it, and the high cost of higher education is threatening the achievement of the American Dream for New York kids.
Thankfully, the president’s budget has addressed this issue in great detail, offering help to current students, graduates already paying back loans and the next generation of college graduates. For starters, it increases Pell Grant funding by $14 billion over the next three years, providing an additional $900 per year per student. It also preserves low interest rates on student loans for an additional year, saving 7.4 million students from seeing their loan rates double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.
The budget also contains sustainable solutions to keep college costs from skyrocketing in the future, including a measure that would tie federal aid to a college’s or university’s ability to keep tuition low. This would be a major incentive for colleges to slow the growth of tuition, and would prevent the price gouging that is unfair to students seeking a degree. The president’s budget would also make available post-graduation data such as employment rates and debt load from different colleges, equipping students with the resources necessary to make an informed decision about where to attend college.
These are innovative solutions that will help lift students up while keeping costs down. However, they will first have to navigate their way through Congress, which has been openly hostile to such aid programs in the past. As part of last year’s budget deal, for example, Congress demanded a $3.6 billion cut to Pell Grant funding, denying help to over 100,000 low-income students seeking a college education.
States also have to be responsible in controlling college costs. Last year, New York State passed a rational tuition policy reducing the increase in average annual tuition rates to CUNY and SUNY schools to well below the national average growth rate of 8.3 percent. The governor’s proposed budget for this year includes a $28 million dollar increase in TAP funding and a 3 percent total increase in NYS Higher Education Services Corporation funding, ensuring assistance to low-income students seeking a college education.
A college education shouldn’t come with a mountain of debt, and Congress shouldn’t stand in the way of making college affordable. Starting with the measures in the president’s budget, Congress should make access to higher education a priority, and should get to work on preserving higher education as the great equalizer in our society.
Rory Lancman is New York State Assemblyman for the 25th District in central and eastern Queens.