Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle speaks while Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., look on. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger
MORRISVILLE — Sen. Bernie Sanders gave himself and others an “F” on Monday for not providing high school students enough information about financial assistance for college and apprenticeship programs.
Sanders led a 90-minute discussion at Peoples Academy with about 60 students on challenges they face going to college or entering the workforce. In addition to finances, the wide-ranging talk touched on employers’ concerns about a general decline in work ethic, and the students admitted most of their generation was “coddled.”
Afterward, Sanders said an information gap existed.
“What I heard is that we are not getting the kind of information out to the young people that we should about how they can make the best choices possible for college or for the careers they want to pursue,” said Sanders, I-Vt. “There are a lot of programs out there, but I’m not sure that those programs are getting into the living rooms of the families that should be learning about them.”
A panel of experts, including Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe and Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle, was on hand. Marilyn Cargill of the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. said there were numerous ways to learn about financial aid, but “obviously we could be doing a lot more just based on the number of hands being raised” with money questions. She said programs are coming up that will provide information.
On a positive note, many of the students had participated in the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont program, where teenagers can take courses on college campuses. Many had also taken advantage of the dual enrollment program, where they can get college credit for a course they take while in high school.
Sanders stopped himself several times, saying he didn’t want to make his comments too political, but he criticized the federal government for charging interest rates on student loans that were too high and spoke of the value of a free college education, a program he has pushed. Sanders said he had met students with loans of $400,000.
The senator later sharply criticized the Republican majority in the Senate for passing a tax reform package “that will probably make it harder for kids to go to college. But I don’t want to get too involved in that today.” He said the bill amounted to “whether it is more important that you get the education that you need or that billionaires get tax breaks.”
Later, Sanders said he was concerned that Pell Grants, a federal subsidy for students with financial need, would be cut to help pay for the tax cuts.
Judy Bourbeau, of the Vermont Department of Labor, said many apprenticeships are available, particularly for budding electricians and plumbers.
Sanders laughed when a student said he was considering politics for a career, and he reassured a ninth-grader who said she hadn’t decided yet what to do.
“First of all, if you’re in the ninth grade, you don’t have to know. It would probably be a bad idea to be certain about what you want to do,” Sanders said. He also said the public needed to overcome the stigma that a college education was better than pursuing a career as an auto mechanic.
“If you think being an auto mechanic is not an important job, talk to somebody whose car breaks down in January. You’ll find out that’s a very important job,” he said.
When a parent said the younger generation was coddled and needed “trigger warnings” and “safe zones,” almost all the students nodded or agreed out loud, though about half of the students said they had outside jobs.
Student Alex Grant spoke for the group.
“I think I can speak on behalf of everyone that we’ve noticed that we are kind of like a softer generation in that people can’t take harsh criticism or criticism in general. It’s got to be put into a nice, respective way, but sometimes it needs to be blunt and to the point that some kids need to step up and not have their feelings hurt,” Grant said, “and actually have to do the things they need to do, like maybe get up early and be tired and power through the day.”