College students

The 2020 General Assembly session is fast approaching, and our elected officials will be doing all they can to ensure that the commonwealth remains prosperous — not just in 2020, but for decades to come. The key to this long-term prosperity is investing in Virginia’s young people, and in doing so, investing in Virginia’s future.

Virginia aims to become the country’s best-educated state by 2030. We already rank in the top tier of states in terms of higher education attainment, but a deeper look shows major equity gaps between high- and low-income students, white students and students of color, and students from the urban crescent and the rural horseshoe. To achieve our goal, it is critical that the commonwealth finds a way to close these gaps. This is both a moral imperative and an economic one.

Without widespread access to a quality postsecondary education, we are failing our citizens and the commonwealth, ultimately perpetuating cycles of poverty for individual families and squandering the human capital our workforce needs to grow and develop. There are multiple ways the legislature can begin effectively closing these equity gaps over the coming months.

First, members of the General Assembly should support Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposal to increase funding for financial aid at our public institutions by $45 million over the next two years. Financial aid dollars go directly to students and decrease the financial burden on them and their families. For many students on the wrong end of those equity gaps, adequate financial aid is the difference between enrolling in college and not enrolling, or between completing and dropping out. This funding should be a top priority for our legislative budget-writers.

Additionally, the administration’s G3 (Get skilled, Get a job, Give back) proposal offers a great opportunity to close equity gaps for community college students. The G3 program would make community college tuition free for students who enter in-demand fields and agree to help serve their communities, while providing additional wraparound financial assistance to students struggling with food or housing insecurity, child care or transportation.

Virginia’s 23 community colleges are some of the best in the country, teaching students the skills needed to obtain stable, high-paying jobs or go on to complete their bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution — both at a fraction of the cost of a traditional four-year degree. Despite this lower price tag, many of Virginia’s community college students are struggling to pay for food, housing or child care in addition to their tuition and textbooks.

The governor’s G3 proposal will help ease those burdens and make education more attainable for low- and middle-income Virginians, all while growing and strengthening our workforce. This proposal is an investment in Virginians and in Virginia’s economic future, and a smart one for the commonwealth to make.

Finally, we can reduce equity gaps by introducing protections for students who face the financial strain of student debt after graduating. For a lucky few, this debt is burdensome but manageable; for many others it is crippling, and the financial liability produces an undeniable impact on the economy.

Significant student loan payments often prevent young people from buying homes, starting families, or pursuing the job they really want because they cannot assume any financial risk. Senate Bill 77, sponsored by state Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, and House Bill 10, sponsored Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, offer students fair and sorely needed protections from predatory loan practices, while giving the state oversight of the largely unregulated student loan servicer industry.

This is a common-sense proposal with bipartisan support that will improve the student borrowing experience and simplify loan payments post-graduation. The General Assembly would be wise to send it to the governor’s desk this year.

These issues transcend partisan labels to lift up Virginians and break cycles of poverty, advance our workforce and strengthen our economy.

By implementing policies that close equity gaps, we can build a stronger commonwealth for everyone. When session is winding down in March, I’m optimistic that we will have accomplished a lot to ensure a brighter future for everyone here in Virginia.

Jared Calfee is executive director of Virginia21. Contact him at: jared@virginia21.org

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