Rep. Elise Stefanik was the first member of her immediate family to graduate from college. Now, as the youngest member of Congress, the 31-year-old New York Republican is hoping to make it easier for more millennials to have the same opportunity.
Stefanik is the chairwoman of the Republican Policy Committee's Millennial Task Force. On Thursday, she led a hearing on college completion, flexibility and affordability. It was the fourth in a series of task force hearings to determine how lawmakers can empower the generation of people born in the 1980s and 1990s.
"With an economy that offers limitless potential, there remains a climate of rapidly rising tuition, a narrative that dissuades the pursuit of trade and technical education, institutions that are catering to an outdated idea of education, and crushing levels of student debt," Stefanik said.
Lauren Kent, a student at Jefferson Community College in Watertown, N.Y., in Stefanik's district, testified about her difficulty achieving her higher education goals.
Out of high school, Kent opted to join the Navy rather than incur student debt to obtain a degree that provided no guarantee of employment. She met her husband in the military and decided to finish her active duty service and have kids before starting college courses in the spring of 2013.
But Kent, whose husband remains on active duty, still faced challenges amid frequent moves and limited course offerings as she pursued an undergraduate degree in molecular biology.
And then there was the high price tag. "The cost of post secondary education is the most significant issue for the entire student population," Kent said. "A viable solution exists in offering unconventional students the option of receiving subsidized financial aid for part-time course work."
Another solution would be to offer two years of free college to students who maintain specific academic standards, she said.
Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a nonprofit that partners with states to improve graduation rates, spoke of the importance of students completing college on time, noting that most students who take a break in their education don't return.
Jones cited statistics that showed students who completed at least 30 credits in their first year of college had a higher likelihood of completing their education in four years. He suggested that lawmakers could use the Pell Grant program to give students a financial incentive for completing those credits.
While the hearing focused on the millennial generation, who account for the majority of today's students, Republican Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer of Indiana said the issue of college access and affordability went beyond that generation.
"It’s really about achieving the American ideal," he said.