Keith Thornton Jr., a 22-year-old senior at Florida International University, lost his job twice in the past year.

If it hadn't been for the federal stimulus funds, he wouldn't be graduating this summer with a degree in recreation and sports management, he told Congressional representatives at a virtual hearing last Wednesday.

Thornton testified before the Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee, part of the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee, about his financial insecurity and how the coronavirus crisis threatened his education and professional development.

This was the first time the subcommittee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, the Democrat representing north Miami-Dade and southern Broward, met since the pandemic hit last year.

"Our higher education system is broken," Wilson said in an interview with the Herald. "It's too expensive; it's out of the reach of ordinary students. We knew that these issues were there, but the pandemic peeled back a layer of problems that are affecting higher education across the nation."

She said the subcommittee will spend the next two months coming up with solutions on these issues. She plans to address college affordability and student loan forgiveness, and increase federal Pell grants and aid for historically black colleges and universities.

She invited Thornton to speak Wednesday because he's a former scholar of the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, a student mentorship program Wilson founded in 1993 when she was a member of the Miami-Dade County School Board.

She knew he had struggled and wanted him to share his perspective as a student.

Last August, during the first week of the fall semester, Thornton was laid off from his job working in the call center of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, where he made about $15 per hour, he said. He had just moved to a new apartment and signed a new lease in June. He worried about paying rent.

"Losing that income was a heavy blow," Thornton said during the hearing. "So it was a great relief when a few weeks later, I received emergency funds from FIU that were made available through the CARES Act. This aid helped me purchase school supplies and keep up with bills."

He went back to work with the state agency in late fall, and then got laid off again last week.

"I would also urge you to continue to provide support for students who are most in need," he told the Congressional lawmakers. "We represent the future and I, like many of my counterparts, want to use my degree to make an impact."

Wilson said she loved watching Thornton.

"I was proud as a peacock," she said, "like a mommy watching her son who has emerged as a young man on his way to greatness."

Wilson said because Democrats control of the House, the Senate and the White House, she hopes her party will help other college students.

"President Biden is going to be key. His wife is an educator so I'm sure she understands the trials and tribulations that higher education is going through," said Wilson, a former principal at Skyway Elementary School in Miami Gardens.

"We have two years. We will be working overtime," she added.


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