In an intimate setting at Clark College on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray asked three Washington students if free community college would make a difference in their lives.
For a moment, Lindsey Norberg, a normally articulate student, struggled to find the right words.
Norberg had just finished telling Murray how difficult it was to find affordable housing; how despite being employed, she’s had stints living without heat, electricity or gas; and how the mounting debt she was taking on to earn her degree often felt overwhelming.
Norberg’s eyes welled up.
Yes, free community college would make a difference, she said.
Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is on a mission to tackle college affordability.
On her website, Murray has asked students to share stories about the challenges they face while earning their degree.
The state’s senior senator is currently championing three ideas: allowing students to refinance their existing loans to lower interest rates; increasing the amount of Pell grants, which is aid for low-income students that does not need to be repaid; and two years of free community college.
Clark College President Bob Knight said he wants to see as many students receive their degree as possible. But he’s skeptical of Murray’s free community college idea.
Students have to have “skin in the game,” Knight said.
Without it, he’s worried they won’t be as motivated to finish their degrees.
“Well, you could make that argument,” Murray said, “but what I hear from students … is there are added costs students have to pay for. If we can figure out the college tuition, they still have a tremendous burden. They still have skin in the game.”
Washington is considered a “low-debt” state, with students who graduated in the class of 2014 owing an average of $24,804, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
Tuition and fees at Clark College are about $4,000 per year for a Washington resident, and the majority of students receive financial aid. In Washington state, the Legislature has floated the idea this legislative session of making community and technical colleges free. Oregon lawmakers recently approved a similar measure and the application process for free community college is currently underway in Oregon for students interested in attending community college this fall.
After hearing from students, Sen. Murray said a theme has emerged.
“What I’m overwhelmed with in hearing everyone’s stories is how complex their lives are in terms of what they are going through to get an education,” Murray said. “They have multiple jobs; they are trying to get through college and do three or four jobs.”
One of the students speaking with Murray was Gabby Apana, an Evergreen High School senior.
Apana told Murray some of her friends won’t even apply to college due to concerns about debt. It’s the kind of story Murray hopes will help her goals earn bipartisan support.
“Guess what happens to their earnings and their income and the economic impact to our country when we don’t have a workforce that is skilled? It’s so important for our economy,” Murray said.
Murray is one of seven children. All seven graduated from college, despite their father being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and losing his job.
The senator told the students — Norberg, Apana and Clark College student body President Sarah Swift — if it hadn’t been for Pell grants and student loans, she wouldn’t be where she is today.