Opinion: It’s time to make college affordable

As Vermont’s college students return from the winter break and begin their spring semesters, college costs continue to weigh heavily on their minds and on their pocketbooks. The price of a college education has steadily grown to become both a personal financial hardship for them and their families, and an emerging national crisis, and we need to tackle it. No student should ever be denied a higher education simply because of a lack of financial ability. That is not how we prepare the next generation to lead our country in the global marketplace.
Higher education opens doors of opportunity to graduates and their families, and it’s a key element of our economic and social infrastructure that contributes to our quality of life and our economy. Pricing higher education beyond young Americans’ means curtails their options, skews their career choices, and risks squandering a competitive advantage the United States has long enjoyed.
For Vermonters who are not priced out completely, overwhelming college debt can saddle them for decades to come. Over the last 30 years the cost of tuition has risen by more than 250 percent. Once first in the world for college attainment among young adults, we now rank 12th. And while affording college has become more difficult, many jobs — particularly those that carry higher salaries — require a degree beyond a high school diploma.
Americans today owe nearly $1.2 trillion in student loans, more than is owed on credit cards. Student loan debt is forcing far too many to put their lives on hold. I hear from young Vermonters who are unable to buy a home or a car, or even start a family, because of outstanding student debt. Students are even feeling pressure about the careers they choose in order to be able to repay their loans.
And for older adults, the burden can be even more troubling. One staggering federal report released last year revealed that student debt held by borrowers over 65 grew from $2.8 billion in 2005, to $18.2 billion in 2013. It also showed that many seniors are being forced to relinquish their Social Security earnings just to pay their student loans. That’s incredibly wrong.
Congress this year must make finding solutions to ease this burden on families a top priority. For starters, we should invest more in Pell Grants, federal work-study programs, and programs that counsel students in making decisions relating to college costs.
I was the first member on either side of my parents’ families to enjoy the blessings of a college education, and I know that we must not forget to adequately support students once they get to college; it’s a transition that’s often difficult for first-in-family students.
Community colleges play an important role in offering affordable options for students, and that’s why I support President Obama’s plan to support states in offering all eligible students up to two years of free community college. Dual enrollment courses can offer high-schoolers the opportunity to complete college courses at a low cost, while still earning credit toward their high school diploma. More students are enjoying distance learning opportunities from accredited schools offering online courses, which allows students more flexibility to live in affordable areas and to work while earning their degrees. All of these are proven, successful avenues, and all of them need support and attention.
But we cannot stop here. We must encourage states and institutions to work together, on the ground, to address college access and affordability. We should revisit the student loan system to identify areas for growth and improvement, such as with student aid determinations. At the very least, Congress must come together to support legislation that allows students to refinance their loans at a lower interest rate.
As far as we’ve come from the depths of the Great Recession of 2008, much more needs to be done to open the doors of economic opportunity and to help working families. We need steady, focused action to make the economy and government work for the middle class, and not just for the swelling ranks of the rich and the privileged. We need policies that bubble up, not failed trickle-down schemes.
One urgent step is making college available, affordable and a real choice for millions of students. This needs to move to Congress’s front burner as a top priority. In his State of the Union address, President Obama said this can’t wait, and he’s right.
Leahy is Vermont’s senior United States senator and a leading member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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