The state of higher education in the president’s State of the Union

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by Colleen Flaherty

As President Obama delivers his State of the Union address tonight, many educators, students and families will be listening for the president’s thoughts on accessibility and affordability to higher education, a topic over half of EducationVotes readers hope he will make a priority.

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Among those is Trina Gray, a Virginia elementary teacher who is very concerned about sending her daughter to college. Ability to attend and afford higher education, says Gray, is connected to several outstanding political issues, including lack of opportunity for all, underfunded schools and the lack of support for our nation’s educators and middle class families.

“I have been an educator for 23 years in Virginia.  I have not had a pay raise in six years, yet all of my utilities, grocery costs and fuel costs have continued to rise.  As my daughter entered college I have found it extremely difficult to get any tuition assistance for her despite the fact that most months I can barely pay my bills.  And trust me, I have cut back everything in my budget.”

Meanwhile, her daughter works two jobs to pay living expenses, but it isn’t nearly enough. According to Gray, higher education is becoming more and more inaccessible for students from non-wealthy families.

“I want President Obama to know that more people are suffering. We need help! Please consider increased funding for public education and for higher education as well.”

The Gray family is not alone in their struggles to pay for a degree; in fact, 71 percent of students who graduated from college last year took out a loan with an average of $29,400 per borrower.

“I would like to hear the President say that he and Congress have not forgotten the millions of current and former college students who have outrageous student loans given by unscrupulous loan companies,” said Ellen Lapota, an Indiana educator. “I would like to hear him and Congress come up with programs that will help these young people out.”

The substantial amount of student debt—now over $1 trillion nationwide—continues to hurt the economy as well as students.

“They are the future of our nation, and right now it is looking very dim. They cannot buy a car, a house, etc. because they are in such debt.”

John Coats is a Pennsylvania educator who, as a parent of children attending college, sees how the burden of rising college costs deepens the economic divide between the have and have nots.

“I have one daughter in college and another starting this summer. The cost of college has become impossible for working class people to families to afford. Especially since after graduation many are still left unemployed.” said Coats.

“This issue is greater than just my issue, it affects all of America.”

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