MOUNT VERNON — U.S. Sen. Patty Murray visited Skagit Valley College on Tuesday to talk about the push to make community colleges free nationwide.
“This is something I have hoped and dreamed about for a long time,” said Murray, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “To me, this is absolutely critical.”
The proposal is a part of the Build Back Better Agenda that President Biden and Democrats are working to move through Congress, Murray said.
The first part of that agenda, which has already passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House, has focused on infrastructure, she said. The second part will focus on the human aspect, including child care and free tuition.
“Our community colleges put higher education within reach for more people, provide opportunities to help workers gain skills and get jobs, and help students transition to four-year colleges,” Murray said in a news release.
Murray’s recently re-introduced America’s College Promise Act would ensure first-time students and workers wanting to retrain could earn a degree or credential at a community college for free, the release states.
Seventy percent of jobs in the U.S. today require some sort of higher education, she said Tuesday at a roundtable held at the college.
“We have to, as a country, make these types of investments,” said Murray, who was a community college instructor before entering politics. “(Community colleges) are actually talking to employers in your community and talking about what they need.”
The idea of free community college is something Skagit Valley College has pursued in recent years, said state Rep. Dave Paul, D-Oak Harbor, who is the college’s director of external relations.
“We just could not get the math to work,” Paul said.
That doesn’t mean the need isn’t there, or that local residents wouldn’t benefit.
“This is definitely something we need,” Skagit Valley College student Gary Shelby told Murray at the roundtable.
Shelby, who is the first in his family to go to college, said his goal is to get his doctorate in political science and one day teach political science at Skagit Valley College before maybe moving into state politics.
Not having to struggle to pay for community college would help him achieve his goals and give back to his community, he said.
“That’s something that’s good for the future of the country,” he said. “I’m going to invest myself back into the community.”
For student Adalis Castellanos, having community college be free would mean more than not having to pay a bill.
“It’s about a freedom for the future,” she said.
For many students, having to pay tuition on top of other expenses such as rent, books, food and gas is a burden that can cause them to not get the jobs they want or to drop out.
Free community college would break down that barrier, Murray said.
“We need people like you who have such potential to give back to their communities,” she told those at the roundtable.
As the country starts the COVID-19 recovery process, now is the time to address changes necessary for economic recovery, including education and child care, she said.
“For a lot of our students today, COVID has really devastated their finances,” Murray said.
If tuition is a barrier for students, it needs to be addressed, she said. Especially since many community colleges, including Skagit Valley College, have a focus on health care, which the pandemic has shown is a much-needed field.
While in the area, Murray also visited Whatcom County to talk about child care and Seattle to talk about public health— topics she said are important in a post-pandemic world.
“Those are the basic things people need to get back on their feet,” she said.