On Thursday, Feb. 19, U.S. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster led a panel of state and school representatives to explore the access and affordability of college. The discussion ranged from student and congress perspective to scholarships and federal aid.

After the introduction of panel members, the discussion began with the 529 plan. This is “a unique college savings plan” in New Hampshire with the concept of trying to help families save for college from when the child is a young age, according to Kuster. “Having been through this, I realize it’s very expensive for families and as the costs continue to go up, it makes it very challenging,” Kuster said.

Tim Smith / Equinox Staff

Tim Smith / Equinox Staff

The 529 plan is a tax-deferred program that Congress put forward to allow families to wait until the money is being used before paying taxes on it, according to Kuster. Administered by Fidelity Investments, Kuster said the 529 plan savings are put into mutual funds to grow and help families to be able to contribute in an easy way.

Kuster said she is working in Congress to create an even more accessible way for families to be able to afford college. “One of the ideas that I have is to look for a funding source for matching funds, so that as you contribute to it the funds will grow even more,” she said.

Vice President of New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation Tara Payne spoke about the importance of scholarships for college students. “Many New Hampshire residents don’t take advantage of some scholarships offered to them,” Payne said. She mentioned the private, non-profit organization New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which allows one in five applicants to receive a sum of scholarship funds.

KSC’s Director of Financial Aid, Pat Blodgett, touched upon some scholarships available for KSC students. The Endowed Scholarship process begins at the end of February and all registered students will be eligible for scholarships. “We award five-hundred thousand dollars to KSC students for the upcoming academic year, we really encourage students to apply,” Blodgett said.

Vice President of Student Affairs Kemal Atkins alluded to the idea of working on campus as a way to help make college more affordable. “The benefit of employment on campus is that [KSC] has excellent opportunities for students to explore their career interest in the many different areas we have working on campus,” Atkins said.

Kuster then mentioned federal student loans and Pell Grants as another way to make college more accessible for students. According to Kuster, one of the challenges of student lending is keeping the interest rate as low as possible. “Going forward in a sponsored legislation, I’d like to help people to be able to refinance their loans,” she said.

Robert Graham, student body president of KSC, directed a question toward Kuster about refinancing student loans and what Congress had planned.

Kuster mentioned a bill she co-signed in the 2012 Congress whose prime sponsor is senior U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts.

“The idea is to take student debt after graduation for students with a higher interest rate and allow [students] to refinance loans at a lower rate,” Kuster said. She said she believes it is critical for being able to make the decision to go into a career of one’s choice, rather than being overwhelmed with the burden of debt.

Director of New Hampshire’s Division of Higher Education Ed MacKay suggested that Congress expand a version of income-based repayment. “It enables the student to realize the amount of money they must set aside to repay their debt,” MacKay said. He said he believes this will give students a chance to look at long-term decision planning, like buying a house, as the economy moves forward.

Discussing other ways to decrease debt, MacKay said, “The single greatest way to reduce your debt is to graduate at a timelier basis.” He said he encourages students to avoid borrowing money for extra semesters and that doing so will decrease the amount of debt.

A student in the audience disagreed with MacKay as she politely discussed the demand for a longer college stay due to her challenging major. She mentioned that some majors at KSC have a higher number of required courses and are extremely structured. “Many of us have very busy schedules and we’re stuck here longer because we can’t get everything done within four years, which adds to our costs,” she said.

Atkins responded by insisting that some majors do in fact require more time. He referred to winter and summer courses that are available for students to help graduate on a more realistic and timely basis.

Mike Welsh, a professor of political science at KSC asked Kuster if policy makers understood the struggles for college students in today’s economy.

Kuster responded with agreeing that it’s hard for middle class families to contribute to college funds and assured the audience that some, but not all, policy makers do understand the struggles.

“I am sometimes appalled to hear public officials make out-of-touch comments with the reality of people’s lives on the topic of higher education,” Kuster said. She said she believes it helps if policy makers understand the struggles in order to make college more affordable.

Payne stated the constant change of reasoning for attending college. She said she believes working with younger kids will help better prepare them for making college happen. “It’s not about where you go, it’s that you go and how you get there,” Payne said.

“I see so many kids that have incredible aspirations that don’t have a co-signer for a private loan, and they may not be able to go to school because federal aid is not enough,” Payne said.

She also said she believes that working and taking federal aid has become a challenge for students. Kuster continued with the idea that the working world is rapidly changing. “It’s going to take your talented generation to keep up with that,” she said to students in the audience. She stated that many businesses are looking for employees with specific skills that are required for their fields.

New Hampshire College and University council member Scott Powers encouraged students to look at specific businesses and focus on what needs to be done to get a good job after graduation. “We’re training students for jobs that aren’t even created yet,” Powers said.

He said he urges students to do well in school but also to talk to businesses. “Network and learn as much as you can so when you’re ready to go into the workforce you’ll have some experience,” Powers said.

Kuster wrapped up the discussion by encouraging students not to oversee “soft skills” looked at by many businesses. Some of these skills include leadership, working well with others and time management. She said she believes that the incoming generation of students are always looking to learn more and she pushes students to pursue a lifelong learning.

As a congresswoman representing New Hampshire since 2013, Kuster has been working on college access and affordability within Congress. She said these conferences help for her to hear ideas from students, faculty and families about the topic of college accessibility. “It’s also a good way for me to share with audiences the legislation I’m working on that will improve this matter of college savings accounts, and introduce programs that people may not be aware of,” she said.

Kuster said she brought in the panel to help people discover information about college access affordability they may have not known.

Skyler Frazer can be contacted at sfrazer@kscequinox.com

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