NEW HAVEN, CT — As one of the youngest members of the U.S. Senate, Chris Murphy’s message resonated with a group of students, faculty and administrators at a roundtable discussion Friday on the cost of college at Southern Connecticut State University.
“I might be the only member of the Senate that is still paying back student loans,” Murphy, who is 44 and a graduate of the University of Connecticut Law School, told his audience.
“I also have young children,” Murphy said, adding that he worries about how he’ll be able to pay the cost of their educations.
Murphy said college education in the country is changing and so should how it’s funded.
“I am a subscriber to the idea of a free college for families of middle and lower incomes,” Murphy said.
He told the students that if he had his way, and he is a supporter and co-sponsor of legislation that says, “If your family earns $125,000 or less, then your college experience would be tuition and expense free.”
Murphy said he knows “that’s an expensive proposition, there’s no doubt about it.”
But he added, the amount of money the federal budget spends on education is a “pittance.”
Murphy said if you total the amount of money the federal government spends on education, science and innovation and infrastructure — “those three things are 4 percent of the federal budget.”
If the government went to the free college plan he is suggesting, it would push that 4 percent figure to about 6 percent, Murphy said, “leaving plenty of room to get cuts in other parts of the budget.”
Murphy said it is important for changes to be made in the college education funding system for the United States economy, also.
“The heart of our country’s economic salvation is our education system and the fact of the matter is we are losing a generation of workers because it is taking longer and longer for students to complete college.
“It used to be the majority of students that went to college finished by the time they were 22 or 23 years old. Now the average age of a college is pushing towards 30 and beyond,” Murphy said.
Today’s traditional student, Murphy said, is one who goes to school part-time because he or she has to work to afford to pay to go to school.
Murphy, who is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said college today is three times more expensive, even factoring in inflation, than it was in 1980.
The bill Murphy talked with the students about Friday, which was introduced by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, doesn’t have the backing of President Donald Trump or the Republican Congress.
Sanders had made a free college education one of the key issues of his failed Democratic presidential campaign against the eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Southern Connecticut State University President Joe Bertolino said that 85 percent of Southern’s students are working part- or full-time jobs, and “many are working multiple jobs just to put themselves through school.”
“One of the things we are trying to do is find ways to expedite the process for our students,” Bertolino said.
“Providing them with a roadmap from the time they get here, laying out for them how quickly they can graduate,” he added.
Bertolino, who has only been president at SCSU for a year, said the college has also been working hard to set up what he termed “partnerships” with community colleges, so that SCSU students can take courses and even earn a degree at those schools.
Murphy’s message struck a chord with many of the students who participated in the discussion, including 24-year-old SCSU student Brianna Savage, of Hamden, who is majoring in Earth Science.
Savage said she and her sister, who is also in college, find one of their most difficult problems “is the cost of books,” which she said could run up to $1,000.
Her comment about the cost of books bought a series of nods from the two dozen or so other students in the roundtable group.
Savage said she and her sister are also in work-study programs, which Murphy told her are in danger of being eliminated under President Donald Trump’s budget plan.
“I think about loans. I think about the books. I go home and I think about my grocery bills, my light bills,” Savage said.