It’s horrifically ironic.
Just when we need more than ever to enhance the skills and capabilities of our workforce, and just as youth and adults more than ever need further post-secondary training to get, keep and advance in good careers – the door to higher education begins to swing shut.
No less than five ominous factors threaten to place a ‘quintuple whammy’ on local students, jeopardizing the dreams of many for a better life through higher education:
• Higher oil prices have increased the cost of commuting and of most goods needed for daily living.
• Government leaders are considering tolls on both floating bridges as a way to finance necessary transportation projects.
• Rather than being subsidized through tax dollars, more educational costs have been passed onto the students, themselves.
• Lenders have raised the eligibility requirements for student loans, leaving thousands with insufficient resources for college.
• Layoffs, higher living costs, mortgage issues and a slumping real estate market have stirred financial havoc.
We all feel the pinch to some extent. It is especially hard for those on fixed and low incomes.
The increased cost of gasoline could add as much as $10 – $20 per week to the cost of education for anyone who must drive to campus. Bridge tolls could cost $15 per week or more for the 2,000 Bellevue Community College students who must cross Lake Washington to get to campus.
One might assume a student could simply switch to a college closer to home. Those who come from a distance generally are doing so because the program they need is unique to BCC – such as the opportunity to do original genomics research, or to study business intelligence or interior design, or to study any of a number of health-care fields, including our bachelor’s degree in radiation and imaging sciences.
Neither is mass transit or carpooling a sufficient solution. Thousands of our students cannot afford to be tied to bus or carpool schedules because they must juggle classes, jobs and daycare schedules for small children into a single day.
The current configuration of bus routes imposes a time penalty of as much as an hour on the daily commute for students who do not already live on the Eastside. Alternate driving routes are not a good answer because of the major traffic congestion that already exists on I-405 is sure to worsen as bridge tolls are imposed.
To these formidable obstacles add rising tuition and textbook costs, recent actions by lenders that now prevent a large proportion of students from qualifying for student loans, and a problematic economy that continues to bring more layoffs and foreclosures and higher costs for the basics, like food.
The challenges have become insurmountable for many people with rigid job schedules, family responsibilities or low income – which together make up a large portion of our student body. We know some of our students have even slept in their cars to reduce expenses. Others can no longer afford education, abandoning their aspirations for family – wage jobs and a more promising future. And, all of us lose well-qualified people to fill the rising skill gaps in our economy.
At BCC we are working to ease the situation by rapidly adding to our existing catalogue of hundreds of online courses and hybrids (classes that are partly online and partly in-person), and are examining other ways we may be able to reduce travel or travel expense to campus to help students economize.
But we also need help in meeting these challenges. Students need better mass-transit options, and transit and bridge-toll subsides for those with low-incomes.
The unusual confluence of economic problems is working directly against the workforce needs of local employers, and disproportionately disadvantaging low-income students — the very people the state needs to be encouraging most to attend college.
In a community that cares, this is not acceptable.
Jean Floten is president of Bellevue Community College.