Like many higher education leaders, I applaud the Biden administration’s recent proposal to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for low- and middle-income earners. It’s a wise approach that targets assistance to Americans who need it most, completely eliminating balances for about half of our country’s 43 million borrowers. 

While the plan has elicited a range of emotions, from relief to frustration, a little historical perspective helped me see why we should support the current proposal.

When I arrived at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1975, average tuition and fees totaled just $532 per year. The minimum wage was then $2.30 and, although I had to live frugally, I was able to work my way through college and graduate debt free. In fact, about 230 hours of minimum wage work fully covered resident tuition and fees.

For today’s students, paying for college without borrowing is much harder. Although the minimum wage has increased by about $10 since I was an undergraduate, to $12.56, CU Boulder tuition and fees for first-year students range from $13,106 to $18,578 in the 2022-23 academic year.

It now takes from over 1,000 hours to nearly 1,500 hours of minimum-wage work to cover tuition and fees at that same university — never mind books, rent, groceries, and gas. That means current students, at minimum, need to work about 20 hours each week just to cover tuition and fees, in addition to studying, caregiving and other responsibilities. Living costs are another huge burden, of course, generally exceeding tuition and fees.

The math simply doesn’t add up for most Coloradans, and it’s easy to see how thousands are forced to take on debt or forgo college altogether. 

Still, if we are thoughtful, we can help students avoid debt while giving them a real shot to get ahead: 

Keeping tuition low: As the chancellor of the Colorado Community College System (CCCS), I’m focused on keeping tuition low so students aren’t saddled with debt in the first place. Our tuition rates are about half that of Colorado’s public four-year colleges and universities, saving transfer students an average of $10,000 toward a bachelor’s degree. Our utilization of open education resources (free textbooks!) save students over $13 million per year.

Making the most of federal aid: We should encourage students to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). According to our analysis, college is already tuition free for the 62% of CCCS students who qualify for Pell Grants, and almost two-thirds of our FAFSA-filers graduate debt-free. Those who have debt take on an average of $12,000 — an amount that can be repaid relatively quickly armed with the earning power of a new degree or credential.

Connecting college to careers: To give students a solid return on investment, education and training must link to in-demand career paths. We specialize in short-term training programs that upskill, reskill, or new-skill students in a year or less so they can quickly find jobs in Colorado’s fastest growing industries, like healthcare, IT and cybersecurity.

Restoring funding: Of course, the long-term solution to reducing student debt is restoring state funding to Colorado’s public colleges and universities. When I was in college, state funding covered about two-thirds of the total cost of college and I covered one-third. Today, that proportion has flipped. Chronic underinvestment by the state in higher education has led to spiraling costs for students and families, made worse by inflation. 

For the sake of our economy and the future of our residents, our legislature and governor must continue to fight for more funding to avoid putting college out of reach for students from low- and middle-income families.

The debt-relief proposal isn’t a perfect solution, nor is it a long-term one, so we must look beyond it. We must re-imagine college to include community colleges and trade schools, and high-quality credentials to include certificates and associate degrees in addition to bachelor’s degrees. 

And we must consider who has the opportunity and resources to attend and how we finance it. If we genuinely want to create opportunity and strengthen our economy, that’s the real conversation worth having. 

Joe Garcia of Denver is the chancellor of the Colorado Community College System and a former lieutenant governor of Colorado. He also formerly was president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, president of Colorado State University-Pueblo and president of Pikes Peak Community College.

Joe Garcia, CCCS Chancellor

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Joe Garcia is the chancellor of the Colorado Community College System