Statewide student group fights college debt

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October 28, 2011

1:47 AM

The current economic recession and decrease in state funding for public colleges have led student activists to fight the growing financial burdens they and their peers face. The campus chapter of Virginia21, a state-wide student interest group, is working to raise awareness about issues facing students at public colleges.

This week public colleges across the state participated in a campaign titled “What’s your number?” in an effort to reduce student debt by pressing state leaders to increase financial aid funding. Virginia21 chapters are circulating a petition calling for an increase in funding for the Virginia Student Financial Assistance Program. Some larger schools are holding rallies as well.

“This petition is about putting a personal face on student loan debt,” Meg Schwenzfeier ’14, a student coordinator with the College of William and Mary’s Virginia21 chapter, said. “I know it’s not always the most interesting thing to talk about, but debt really does have an adverse impact on many students, and this can be seen in some of the personal stories submitted along with petition signatures.”

The State Council for Higher Education for Virginia has shown that between 2000 and 2010, the average funding for students was cut in half, and consequently, student debt for in-state students has nearly tripled. During the 2009 to 2010 school year alone, College students amassed $10,357,002 in need-based student loans.

Two economics professors at the College, Robert Archibald and Dave Feldman, helped explain this trend in their recent book, “Why Does College Cost So Much?” They assert that during hard economic times, funding for higher education is one of the first expenditures to be cut. States often support increasing tuition over increasing taxes, and there are strong demands for revenue for causes other than higher education.
Virginia21 is calling on the state to reprioritize funding for state colleges and universities in the form of an increase in financial aid.

“It’s not about asking for a government handout. It’s about helping out people, like myself, who work 40 hours a week to pay for school, to get a break in order to get an education and improve our lives,” Carly Zeh ’14 said.

While financial aid is an investment for individual students, Virginia21 argues it is an investment for the state as a whole and that increased numbers of college graduates will lead to increased economic productivity.

The University of Virginia, commissioned by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, conducted a study showing that for every tax dollar the state invests in public higher education, there is an increase of $1.39 in new state revenues, and there is a $13 increase in economic output.

“A low-income student should not have to forgo a college education because of the rising cost of tuition and lack of financial aid,” Rachel Brooks ’14, a student coordinator with Virginia21, said. “Education is increasingly important in today’s global economy.”

According to the College’s Office of Financial Aid, in the 2009 to 2010 school year, 3,005 out of the College’s 5,757 full-time undergraduate students applied for need-based financial aid. While 1,902 students were determined to have financial need, only 1,443 received aid. Among those who received aid, only 79 percent of determined need was met.

Virginia21 also addresses other issues in addition to financial aid.

“Issues such as financial aid, the in-state to out-of-state ratio, and finding a job after college are issues that affect students and are shaped in Richmond, not Williamsburg,” Keenan Kelly ’14, a student coordinator with Virginia21, said. “Virginia21 wants to provide students with information on these issues and give them a chance to express their opinions.”

The petition pressing for more financial aid can be found at: virginia21.org/whatsyournumber.

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