Rising Tuition in #HigherEd: Q&A with Alexsis Rodgers from VA21

Summer and weekend jobs aren’t covering the cost of a college education anymore.

State budget cuts and subsequent tuition increases are hitting higher education with a one-two combo much stronger than in years past. Cost is absolutely on the minds of the 70 percent of students who are graduating with student loan debt in 2015, and at the forefront of the conversation for those assessing their educational options (or lack thereof).

Want to connect with Alexsis? Tweet her @aerodgers.

To get some perspective, I wanted to speak with someone who works with these issues on a daily basis. I sat down with Alexsis Rodgers, communications director at non-partisan advocacy group Virginia21, to get her thoughts on how college costs are affecting today’s students.

First, the big one: with the skyrocketing cost of higher education, are students losing more than they gain?

Research shows that the investment is still worthwhile – despite rising tuition, lifetime earnings and value still outpace cost. The problem is really about who is deciding to go to college. Families often self-select out, and the students who opt out from the beginning are usually from low-income, minority families. This means the access and opportunity gap continues to widen. So, college is still a good investment, but if people don’t see that or think it’s attainable because of the continued growth of the sticker price, then we’re facing a huge societal and economic problem. And that’s what happening – more and more families are saying, “I can’t afford it,” from the beginning.

What changes need to take place to turn this problem around?

It’s not just state funding – universities need to find ways to manage expenses as much as possible on their end. As much as we’re fighting for higher education funding to be re-prioritized, what we’re seeing is that it’s not necessarily going to happen immediately. Anything universities can do in the short term to become more nimble will be hugely important.

Really, we need to graduate students in four years so they’re not racking up extra, unnecessary debt. A lot of the time it’s because they’re unable to enroll in classes they need. It’s equally as important to find them the right connections while they’re in school so they can seamlessly make their way into the workforce.

(For more on this, check out my earlier post on efficiency in higher education).

What advice do you have for students and families to keep in mind when assessing educational options?

This is the biggest investment you will make until you buy a house – well, more than likely. It’s important not to take that lightly and remember that you don’t know your future self, so this decision needs to be a good fit for you at the current time so you complete your degree. Because starting and not finishing is worse than not starting at all (racked up debt and nothing to show for it).

Students need to weigh all of their options – while society says everyone needs to be at a four-year institution to be taken seriously, that’s not the case. There’s not a singular path that’s right for everyone.

There’s a lot of buzz on the topic – anything being left out of coverage?

Due to recent news and events, a lot of thought in the circle tends to be related to mental health and campus safety. Legislators try to take action and want to address these things, but often think about issues in silos. For example, there will be great ideas to address something like campus sexual assault, but then it comes time to talk about college funding and you hear, “Alright, time to cut the budget.” How do you successfully implement these new programs and regulations when there’s less money to do so? It can be hard for us to connect those dots sometimes and realize that we can’t do something like, for example, graduate students faster when there are fewer professors being employed.

It might not be completely left out of the picture, but we can’t keep addressing things in neat boxes without looking at the big picture. We can’t forget to push for change regarding important issues as soon as they escape the limelight.

Since financial messaging can be tricky for higher education institutions – what kind of communications in that arena would you say are most effective for reaching prospective students?

Prospective students aren’t usually thinking about the investment they’re making. Instead, they’re thinking about the environment, educational programs and other things aside from wise financial decisions. The message that will resonate best will be from universities that demonstrate how you’re going to graduate on time and be ready for the workforce when you do. Talking finances by itself likely won’t resonate with many young people, but talking about a smart life decision for the future will.

Final thoughts?

These issues impact all of us. When I tell people I work on college affordability, I haven’t talked to one person who’s responded, ‘Oh, college is totally affordable! Not my problem!’ So these issues impact all of us, but a lot of people don’t realize they can be involved and do anything about it. That’s what Virginia 21 is about – making people aware of that. When young people get together with a single focus and mission, really effective things start to happen. So, want to make a difference? Read up, utilize your state’s resources and speak your mind.

About Virginia 21: Virginia21 is a non-profit organization that engages young people in the political process by providing information, directing advocacy, and coordinating political action on a non-partisan issue agenda. With chapters all around the Commonwealth and members in every legislative district, VA21 has engaged over 100,000 young people in the political process since its founding 12 years ago, making it the most successful advocate for young voters in the nation. Learn more at www.virginia21.org.

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