Key issues in President Joe Biden’s town hall meeting from Milwaukee Tuesday were school reopening and coronavirus relief. But the president addressed a number of other issues, including the push from the left of his party for a plan for major forgiveness of student debt.
Showing the moderate side for which Biden has been known over his career, the president rejected forgiving $50,000 in debt and said his focus would be on a plan to put aside $10,000 in individual debt. Though that plan would be expensive, as would proposals backed by Biden such as making community college free, he seems to be open to boosting higher education opportunities for current and future students amid the pandemic, and in a way that could gain bipartisan support.
His words came on the evening before Republican Gov. Henry McMaster joined with the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education and the state’s public and independent colleges and universities in calling for $80 million in S.C. Education Lottery funds to provide need-based grants directly to students for their postsecondary education.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students and families financially and psychologically. Some students opted for a “gap” year, during which they either worked or volunteered instead of enrolling in higher education after high school. Other students had no choice but to delay or stop their education after high school to help their families weather the crisis.
“The CHE is committed to increasing educational attainment by keeping college accessible and affordable for all South Carolinians,” said Dr. Rusty Monhollon, president and executive director of the CHE. “As more of the cost of higher education has been shifted to students and their families, the importance of expanding need-based financial aid has never been greater. Need-based grants, as part of a well-designed set of financial aid policies, increase access, persistence and completion among low-income students. As such, they are a tremendous investment in our young people, and one we as a state must make.”
While South Carolina’s higher education system of two- and four-year colleges and universities has been hit hard by COVID-19, students and families have been impacted as hard or harder, according to a statement from the governor’s office. Enrollment this past fall decreased by 13% among all the state’s institutions of higher education.
According to the governor’s office, part of this decline may also be attributed to students struggling with virtual instruction, preferring not to learn remotely or lacking access to the network infrastructure. But the most significant barrier students face remains affording higher education instruction. Students either do not have the money to enroll or must stop their studies to help support their families financially.
“Increasing need-based grants will brighten the futures of thousands of students, including more than 12,000 South Carolina students attending independent colleges and universities in the state,” South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities President Jeff Perez said. “COVID-19 has had a deep and long-lasting impact on our students and their capacity to pay for college. Increasing students’ need-based aid could very well be the difference between staying enrolled and giving up on their dream of a college education.”
McMaster declared in submitting his executive budget: “No government function in South Carolina is more important than educating our children and young adults. Preparing young people for college, career and real life is the objective.” Access and affordability to higher education for every South Carolinian is fundamental to ensuring the state has the workforce needed to compete in the 21st century economy. The state must invest to make all higher education – colleges, universities and technical colleges – accessible and affordable.
It will now be up to lawmakers to determine just how much funding can go to helping those in need continue their education after high school. Being sure the pandemic does not prove fatal to educational opportunities for many South Carolinians is a priority and represents an investment in South Carolina’s future.