We have heard it a million times — a good education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty. Education has remained a core value across the globe because it provides access to living wage jobs, health care, economic security and an overall quality of life.
Our communities and economy have thrived on the principal that if you go to college and work hard, you can build the life you always imagined. College offers a life that sparks images of hope, prosperity, quality time spent with friends and family and a fulfilling career. It is at the center of the American Dream. However, this is becoming more difficult to attain for today’s young people.
Since the Great Recession, our economy hasn’t been working for America’s youth. In many ways, it’s been working against them.
The cost of tuition has edged many young people out of college attendance, while others take on backbreaking levels of student loan debt before they have any idea what they have signed up for. As of 2019, national student loan debt has spiked to $1.5 trillion, with concerns it may be the next big national financial crisis.
In Washington, we have a long track record of working to reduce this burden for our college students. Last year, the Legislature passed the Washington Workforce Education Investment Act, which provided access to free public college education for Washington students. The College Bound Scholarship program, established in 2007, covers tuition for low-income students for up to four years.
However, as the homelessness crisis rips across the state, college students are finding themselves with nowhere to go once outside the walls of their classrooms. Food pantries have become commonplace on college campuses nationwide. For students, the first year of college is crucial. It’s tough and designed to mold and test them for the working world ahead. Students are expected to learn who they are as individuals while balancing work, demanding course loads and confusing social dynamics.
This is close to an impossible task for a student who must choose between finishing statistics homework and finding a dry place to sleep in the winter and a warm meal to eat. A Temple University survey estimates 36 percent of college students are housing insecure and nine percent are homeless. However, we don’t really know how widespread this problem is because once students leave K-12, the state is no longer required to track that data. What is clear is that we need to do more in supporting college students beyond tuition.
Legislation being discussed in Olympia would do just that. House Bill 1278 would require colleges and universities offering on-campus housing to provide first-year College Bound Scholarship students without shelter access to room and board when space is available. Because only unoccupied rooms will be given, no other students will be displaced, and the colleges will only foot minimal costs.
Higher education is the best way to ensure that our homeless youth do not become homeless adults. Giving these students extra support will ease the unique difficulties they face and allow them to focus on education and preparing for adulthood. If we really want to break the cycle of poverty, we act holistically and give disadvantaged students all the tools they need to graduate and pursue their careers.
Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, represents the 11th Legislative District of Washington state. He chairs the House Committee on Innovation, Technology and Economic Development. He currently serves on the South Seattle College President’s Advisory Committee. Charles Adkins serves as the Vice-President of Federal Affairs for the Washington Student Association. He was homeless on the streets of Everett for several years in high school and now advocates on behalf of disadvantaged student groups to ensure others have a chance at a college education.