Senator pushes to make college affordable
Published: Thursday, April 19, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 22:04
More affordable and more available — these are two things that Sen. Bernie Sanders would like to see a university education become.
The New England Education Opportunity Association gave Sanders the Claiborne Pell Award to recognize his commitment to higher education at a ceremony in Stowe April 4.
The award, which is the association’s top honor, is given “to those rare individuals whose pioneering leadership and vision have made an indelible mark on the struggle for equal education opportunity,” a press release stated.
Sanders said the challenge facing policymakers today is how to make colleges more affordable to the working class.
“The sad reality facing us right now is that college education is increasingly unaffordable,” he said. “A lot of people are not going to college because they don’t want to be in debt.”
In 2007, Sanders supported and helped create higher education legislation that included increasing Pell grants and a loan forgiveness program in which students entering the public service sector would see their loans canceled for a decade.
The legislation amounted to $17 billion in additional financial aid, with $26.7 million of that allotted to Vermont students, according to Sanders’ website.
The following year, he also supported the creation of a new G.I. Bill, as part of the 2008 Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, which provides the equivalent of in-state tuition to any university in the veteran’s state based on undergraduate tuition.
Still, according to the latest figures released by the Institute for College Access and Success Project, the average class of 2010 graduate owed $25,250.
“We have a long way to go,” Sanders said. “We should look to some other countries where colleges are either free or inexpensive.”
There was a time when a public education in the U.S. was good enough, Sanders said.
“We need to understand that a college degree is what a high school degree was 50 years ago,” he said.
First-year Kara Ciambra said that a college education was necessary for today’s competitive job market, but UVM’s relatively high cost of in-state tuition was frustrating.
“As a Vermonter, it’s frustrating to go to a school known for the highest in-state tuition,” Ciambra said. “It’s a great school and I’m glad to be here, but I often times think about the fact that I could go out of state for less money, and it’s disappointing.”
The Claiborne Pell Award, named after the U.S. senator from Rhode Island — who created the Pell grants used to provide financial aid to students, — is a testament to the dedication to education that has become a major part of Sanders’ political platform.
Past recipients include Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. James Jeffords.
In Sanders’ view, the importance of education extends beyond just earning a degree. Rather, he said he sees higher education as an integral aspect of being an active American citizen.
“It is the future of America,” he said. “We are a democracy, and democracies do not flourish unless young people receive a good education to be good, participating citizens.”
Administrators such as federal relations director Wendy Koenig commented on what Sanders had specifically contributed to the UVM community, saying that Sanders had made a “concerted effort” to help students attend college.
“Be it through garnering federal resources to maintain Pell grants, or increasing the amount of loan forgiveness funds for Vermonters who choose to stay here and practice medicine after school, the Senator has been a real champion for students,” Koenig said.
In October, Sanders released a newsletter called the “Bernie Buzz: College Edition” which featured commentary from current UVM students about tuition issues and information on legislation that would aid students in affording college.
He said the response to the newsletter was strong, and plans to release another edition in the future so that students stay informed.
“My job as a senator of Vermont is to hear from all the young people across the state,” he said. “I think it is no great secret that young people are not as engaged in the political process, which is unfortunate because it is this generation that is going to be paying the price.
“You should be holding your elected officials accountable and fight for what is proper,” Sanders said. “We want to hear what students have to say and involve them in the democratic process.”