California Congressman Eric Swalwell’s experience of financing higher education will ring familiar to many members of his generation, but likely not to many of his colleagues.
The now 37-year-old, attended public institutions for his undergraduate and law school degrees — the latter in-state — worked while in college, had an athletic scholarship at one point, got some help from his parents and yet still managed to graduate from both institutions with about $150,000 in student loans.
“It’s apples and oranges,” Swalwell said in an interview of the comparison between his experience paying for college and that of his colleagues. The average age of a House member is 57 and the average age of a Senator is 61, according to Quorum, a company that tracks legislation.
“I often hear ‘I worked my way through college, what the hell are you guys doing to rack up so much debt?’ It’s a fair question,” Swalwell said, later adding, “The truth is, it just costs a hell of a lot more.”
A new analysis comparing how much members of Congress paid for their schooling to the costs of today’s students backs him up. When the members of the House of Representatives went to college, the average cost for a year of school was $8,487 in today’s dollars, according to the study published Thursday by Demos, a left-leaning think tank.
The same number of students attending the same mix of schools today would pay over $24,000 per year. Senators paid $9,480 a year on average when they went to school, the analysis found, compared to an average of nearly $29,000 for today’s students.
The analysis, which uses data on where each member of Congress went to college and the cost of their college from the year they graduated to determine the averages, doesn’t necessarily reflect the way rising college costs are experienced by the typical American. But what it does show is how drastically the challenge of paying for college has changed for American families since those who make some of the policy decisions on college affordability were attending school.
“We wanted to create something that was a reminder to lawmakers of the advantages that many of them had in financing their own dreams and education,” said Mark Huelsman, a policy analyst at Demos and the author of the report. “We want lawmakers to realize that it’s only fair to give their constituents the same fighting chance that they had.”
Members of Congress are largely baby boomers and when many of them went to college, the level of state support for public colleges was higher education and costs for families were lower. What’s more, wages were higher so families had more money to draw on to pay for college. Crucially, for all those stories you hear from your parents and grandparents about how they worked their way through school, funds from a minimum wage job could actually make a dent in the cost of college.
There are actions lawmakers could take to help return the college affordability situation to mirror something closer to what it looked like when they went to school, according to Huelsman. For one, use their “bully pulpit” to push their states to fund public colleges and universities at higher levels, which research shows could drive down the cost of college for students and families.
Huelsman also suggests they increase the maximum Pell grant, the money the government provides for low-income students to attend college. At its current level, the Pell grant covers the smallest share of college costs in decades.
Swalwell has expressed support for raising the Pell grant as well as other efforts to ease the burden of paying for school. He worries that without changes, young people won’t have the opportunity to improve upon the lives of their parents — a central tenet of the American Dream. Swalwell is all too familiar with this concept; he and his wife are renters in part because of the $600 a month they send away servicing his debt.
“Of course there’s going to be this disconnect,” between Swalwell and his older colleagues who have had different experiences, he said, “that poses a challenge when we need action on this.”
Article: CBS Marketwatch, by Jillian Berman