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Pain of college debt weighs heavily on Virginians


moneyFrom forcing families to delay starting a family, to preventing recent graduates from purchasing a home and entrepreneurs from starting businesses to help spur the economy, the impact of college debt is felt far and wide across Virginia.

Voters are now calling on their elected officials to stem the tide of these rising costs, according to the results of a statewide survey released today by ACT Now! VA, a grassroots movement presented by Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @EDU.

ACT Now! VA, short for Affordable College Tuition, is a grassroots campaign that stood up in 2016 to encourage public dialogue and action to help ensure improved affordability and quality at America’s public colleges and universities. It launched its efforts with a market survey in Virginia that catalogued more than 1,000 responses from a diverse audience across the Commonwealth.

The survey captured their personal stories about the impact of the rising cost of a college education at public universities and their ideas on how to address the pressing problem.  It confirmed, in graphic detail, that Virginians are hurting and reinforced the results of a statewide voter poll released last week. In a full-page ad released today, ACT Now shared stories from Virginia families worried about the cost of college.

“The pain Virginians from all corners of the state feel is evident,” said Helen Dragas, Partners board chair after reading through every response survey respondents made. “In just 10 years, students and their parents are paying 74 percent more for the chance at a better future. It’s gotten so bad that the increase in tuition has exceeded the devastating rise in the cost of national healthcare by more than 50 percent. And Virginians want action — 95 percent of our survey respondents said it’s important for policymakers to find ways to lower the cost of a college degree.”

The survey revealed that nearly 90 percent of respondents feel that their incomes are not keeping up with their ability to pay for college. Fully 81 percent believe that some action should be taken to lower, freeze or cap future tuition rates.

“Since the 2001-2002 academic year, the Consumer Price Index has increased 35.2 percent,” said James V. Koch, president of Partners, former president of Old Dominion University, and author of several highly-respected reports that study the economies of the Commonwealth and Hampton Roads. “Over that same time, William and Mary’s in-state tuition and fees soared 344 percent, Virginia Tech’s rose 249 percent, and George Mason University’s by nearly 200 percent. This is not a recipe for economic growth.”

Other survey results included the following:

  • The majority of respondents do not believe that Virginia public colleges and universities spend money wisely and are run efficiently.
  • More than half of the respondents want Virginia to at least freeze college tuition costs at their current level, with 46 percent suggesting that tuition be reset to lower rates.
  • Nearly 90 percent of respondents said it is very important for elected officials and policymakers to find ways to lower tuition.

“Some say Richmond is to blame when they cut state funding for public colleges,” Dragas said. “That’s wrong. For every $1 reduction in public funding, tuition goes up by $2.”

In addition to asking respondents multiple-choice questions, survey takers also shared their personal stories with college affordability. These are just some of the hundreds received:

  • “I’ll be paying off loans until I die.”
  • “The debt that is being hung on my 20-year-old son is staggering.”
  • “The degree I studied was supposed to cost $28,000. After it was all said and done I owed about $60,000 between three separate student loans with the total cost greater than my house payment. I thought the degree would lead to a promotion. Instead, I got laid off.”
  • “I will always have this (student loan) debt, even after six straight years of paying it off, I am no where close to the end. I fear that this will haunt me and hinder me in the future when I try to buy a house or save for a family I hope to one day have.”
  • “The price of college at public universities is disconnected from rational economics.”
  • “My husband and I are unable to afford children because of his student loan debt.”
  • “As a retired school counselor, I saw many students and families who ruled out college because of cost and the complexity of the financial aid system.”
  • “College has been a double-edged sword. It helped me professionally and hurt me personally.”
  • “We are not poor enough to get help and not rich enough to pay. Being caught in the middle leaves few options.”

“Student debt chokes off the opportunities for new business and job creation Virginia so badly needs,” Koch said. “We have been walking down the wrong pricing path in public higher education. It is time to change direction.”

Download additional details from the survey results here.



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