Testimony before the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Higher Education
Presented by Rachael Collyer
May 19th, 2015
Honorable Chairman Gardner and members of the committee,
My name is Rachael Collyer and I address you today both as a student with a personal stake in the issue and also as an educational justice organizer with the Ohio Student Association. The Ohio Student Association builds grassroots political power to elevate the voices of Ohio’s youth. We are currently active at six universities and in two cities; we organize and advocate on issues that affect young people; and we engage thousands of young people in the political process. In 2014, we engaged 25,000 young voters in face-to-face conversations. We are the most powerful organization of young people in Ohio. And the student debt crisis is without a doubt one of the most pervasive, urgent, and dire issues facing Ohio’s young people today.
It is certainly an issue that has affected me and one that I am saddened to see grow worse and worse in our state. I am a proud lifelong resident of Ohio–I was born here, attended public school in Cleveland Heights, and chose to remain in Ohio to pursue higher education. In fact, I graduated summa cum laude from the Ohio State University last weekend. Normally this would be a time for celebration, but like countless students across Ohio, I graduated with the heavy burden of student debt. In many ways, I feel as though I have been lied to. It was always understood that I would go to college–both of my parents and their siblings went, and the conventional idea that hard work and a college education will bring you success actually applied to them. However, for most students today, this simplistic view of what is necessary to achieve the American Dream is a cruel illusion. It is incredibly frustrating that despite doing everything I was always told I needed to do to be successful, I now find myself in overwhelming debt. The saddest thing about this is that I am one of the lucky ones. My parents are middle class and have been able to help me out with expenses such as textbooks, rent, and groceries, but there are so many students who do not have the same advantages, including my best friend. After we graduated from high school, he started taking classes at our local community college. His single mother could not afford to help him financially; so he was working full-time to pay his tuition on top of rent, bills, groceries, and transportation. He could not afford a car; so he took the bus to school, an hour long commute both ways. The financial, logistical, and academic stress were extremely hard on him, and he was ultimately unable to go back after his first semester. Conventional wisdom about the American meritocracy, that mythical level playing field, would dictate that my best friend simply did not work hard enough to pull himself up by his bootstraps. The truth is that the playing field is anything but level, and if anything, it has only become more uneven since our parents’ generation.
Since my parents attended college, the quality of a college education has dropped while the cost of higher education has steadily increased. There were also vastly more jobs that did not require a college education, while projections say that by 2020 55% of Ohio jobs will require higher education. Today only 25% of Ohioans have the necessary education. So since my parents were in college, higher education has become both more and more necessary and more and more expensive, and on top of that minimum wage has stagnated and the current rates of youth unemployment and under-employment are far above the average for the entire population. The takeaway from all of this is that we are systematically denying young people a future, but it isn’t just young people who will suffer. Ultimately our whole society will pay–my generation will be trapped paying for our education, our children’s education, and our parents’ medical bills–or at least trying to. And that’s assuming that the debt bubble doesn’t burst before then and destroy the economy.
The truly shameful thing is that things do not have to be this way. The challenges facing my generation are the consequences of political choices. Widening inequality, skyrocketing tuition, exploding student debt, decreasing quality of education, youth unemployment and underemployment and mass incarceration–these are not simply the result of some economic perfect storm. They are the result of decades of bad policy decisions that do not reflect our values, and they can be corrected by decades of good policy decisions that do.
These bad policy decisions are not the fault of the members of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Higher Education, but it is your responsibility to help us find solutions to get Ohio back on the right track.
Actions speak louder than words, and the state budget is our values in action. It is our priorities as a state–and creating it, debating it, amending it, and passing it is one of the most important things you all will do while in office. That is why I am here speaking to you today, because I want a budget that reflects the values of my state.
As it stands, Ohio has already cut more funding for need-based financial aid than any other state in the Midwest. This is an embarrassment, and the very least we can do with this budget is reinstate the Ohio College Opportunity grant to what it was before the recession. When I say this is the very least we can do, I am referring to the more than 4.5 billion dollars in tax breaks the proposed budget stands to pass out to the wealthiest Ohioans, and this while hard-working students are laboring under the heavy burden of debt for the crime of pursuing an education. This seems deeply unfair to me, and not only that, but there is no evidence that giving tax breaks to people that don’t need them has any economic benefit to our state.
The Ohio Student Association has an alternative proposal. We have a simple four-point plan.
- Put 1 billion back into state funding for public colleges and universities
- Put 1 billion into community colleges and workforce development
- Put 1 billion back into OCOG, the Ohio College Opportunity Grant to expand need-based financial aid
- Put 1 billion more into the Student Debt Relief fund. Offer student debt tax credits to students who choose to stay in Ohio after graduation to incentivize them to stay in the state, get a job, or start a business and create jobs for others.
There you go. A simple four-point plan to invest that would make Ohio’s higher education system the best in the nation, and boost our economy far more than tax giveaways.
Making these changes would provide us with actions that match our words, and a budget bill that better reflects our values. If we don’t invest in the future, we will not have one.
I thank you very much for your time, and will now answer any questions you might have.