Thirteen Howard Community College students had the chance to talk college affordability with Sen. Ben Cardin Friday morning last week at the Columbia campus.
Students discussed their struggles to pay for and complete their degrees while juggling obligations such as parenthood and work. They also asked about financing options for diverse segments of the population like adult learners and veterans.
"I'm a working mom, and my oldest child will graduate high school in 2020," student Beth Evans said at the roundtable, which was also attended by the community college's president, Kathleen Hetherington. "I'm worried about paying for my children's college tuition."
Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, told Evans and the other students about existing tools to keep their student debt as low as possible, including a program introduced by President Barack Obama that caps student loan repayments at 10 percent of a person's income.
But he also spoke about how much more needs to be done to make college affordable, so that Americans aren't missing out on opportunities to which higher education leads, and so that they're not struggling with debt after graduation.
"There are tools," Cardin said. "Are they adequate? Obviously not."
The senator has been holding sessions with students on college affordability and student debt for the past two or three years, according to his press secretary, Tim Zink.
"I want to listen to the students," Cardin said. "It gives me a chance to put a face on the issue."
College affordability should be made a national priority, he said, because student debt impacts the economy.
"Those who do go through their training, and end up with that $27,000 worth of debt, or in some cases that $100,000 worth of debt, or $150,000 worth of debt — they then make different life decisions," he said.
A study by American Student Assistance suggested that the $1.2 trillion in total student debt may be preventing or dissuading Americans from making major life decisions or purchases, or saving for retirement.
"They put off buying a home, because they just can't afford the debt of a mortgage on top of their student debt, or they can't even qualify for a mortgage because of their student debt," Cardin said. "Or they don't invest in a business because they just can't afford to. Or they don't start a family, even though they would like to start a family."
Nearly 70 percent of bachelor's degree recipients leave school with debt, according to government data. The average amount of student debt for a Maryland graduate of a four-year, public or private college is $27,457, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
Cardin pointed out that community colleges are a great value compared to the high cost of four-year schools, and praised Howard Community College for its program offerings.
Attending Howard Community College full-time during the 2015 to 2016 school year costs $4,624, compared to $11,006 at University of Maryland-Baltimore County, or $45,200 at Loyola University Maryland.
But Cardin lamented the fact that some students graduate two-year programs with debt, or can't afford to attend them in the first place.
"This is Howard County, one of the strongest counties in the country," he said. "And there are people here who want to go to college and can't. They can't come here."
The students who graduate from community college with debt are more likely than other students to default on their loans, according to a recent analysis by the Association of Community College Trustees. The study showed that community college students defaulted at a rate nearly 7 percent higher than the overall student population, three years after entering repayment.
Cardin said he supports President Obama's push to make community colleges tuition-free. And his vision, he said, is to go even further to providing debt-free tuition to four-year colleges, in exchange for service after graduation in high-need areas, such as teaching or nursing.
At the end of the roundtable, one student asked how she could help.
"How can I help this get through? Because I have friends who cannot afford college," said Pooja Singh.
"You can help just by telling your story and trying to get that out there," Cardin said.