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Students tell Sen. Murray about challenges of working through college

Congress is working on rewriting the rules that determine how federal financial aid for college is distributed, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, is playing a key role. On Tuesday, Murray spent an hour talking to three Washington college students about how financial aid has worked for them — and how it hasn’t.

Murray is now the ranking member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a committee she has served on since 1997. The committee will control reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the federal law that governs the distribution of student financial aid.

In the meeting at Seattle Central College, all three students talked about how difficult it has been to work their way through school by holding down one or two jobs.

Green River College student Karen Gamez, who moved here from Mexico when she was 3 years old, told Murray that for many years she thought she’d be able to take advantage of the College Bound Scholarship, a state program that helps students from low-income families cover the costs of attending a public college. It was only late in her studies at Kent-Meridian High School that she learned she wasn’t eligible because she was undocumented. And Gamez found that few of the adults who advised her seemed to know the financial-aid rules for students who came to this country when they were children.

Gamez was admitted to the University of Washington and Washington State University, but instead went to Green River, aided by a community scholarship, because that was all she could afford. She has since won more financial aid and hopes to move to a four-year institution and earn a bachelor’s degree. But she cannot apply for federal loans because of her undocumented status, so she must work long hours to pay tuition, she said. At one point, she said she was working two jobs — between 40 and 60 hours a week — and also going to school full-time.

Two other community college students — Salem Stafford and Manuel Venegas — also described the difficulties of working their way through school.

Murray said her focus on the committee is “making sure federal laws work for you.” She is especially interested in understanding the challenges for students who don’t go directly to a four-year college right out of high school, saying many students take that route — they work for a while, or start their college educations at a community college.

The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is headed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and Alexander has spoken forcefully about his interest in slimming down regulations on colleges and simplifying the federal student-aid application, making it easier to apply for financial aid. Murray, too, spoke of her interest in simplifying that form during Tuesday’s meeting.

The two senators are creating a new working group specifically focused on college affordability and accountability.

Alexander wants to discourage students from borrowing too much money, and to encourage colleges and universities to reduce their costs. In a hearing earlier this month, the committee explored the idea of making universities have more “skin in the game” when it comes to helping students get through school faster with less debt. Committee members discussed whether to require students who are using financial aid  to take a minimum number of credits each semester or quarter, for example, so they finish faster.

Nationally, the average debt for an undergraduate who went to a public or nonprofit college in 2013 is $28,400, according to the Project on Student Debt. It’s a little lower in Washington state — about $24,418, on average, and about 58 percent of Washington students have gone into debt to pay for their educations.