From small technical schools to big state universities, plans are underway for graduation. Excited graduates will celebrate with their friends. Proud parents will take dozens of photos. Distinguished speakers will give advice about embarking into the world.
But many families will also be talking about one of the hardest things about leaving school: paying back student loans. As I travel all around the Commonwealth, the single most frequent concern I hear is how to pay for an education. I talk with moms and dads who are committed to help their kids get an education, but they see costs spiraling out of control. I hear from students who did everything right – worked hard, played by the rules, and are on their way to graduation – and who have been left drowning in debt with few job prospects in sight. I listen to young people who have dropped out of school, crushed by the growing debt burden. I talk with people in their 50s who are balancing mortgages and the costs of raising a family, while still trying to pay off student loans. For hundreds of thousands of people, managing student loans is a major source of stress and anxiety.
If Congress doesn’t act, it is about to get harder. On July 1, interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans will double, going from 3.4% to 6.8%. Estimates are that this increase will cost the average student borrower more than $1,000 over the life of the loan.
The rising price tag for an education is swamping more and more families. After adjusting for inflation, a student paying for tuition and fees at a public university today will pay more than 350% of what her parents paid 30 years ago. The costs of private schools are even higher. Fewer and fewer families can manage those costs without turning to debt. It is no surprise that the combined national student debt is now more than $1 trillion.
Big student loans were not always a way of life. I grew up in an America that was committed to expanding opportunity through education. The generation before me had the GI Bill, which drew thousands into colleges, universities, and advanced technical training. In the 1950s, when America found itself lagging behind the Soviets in space exploration, we passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) to help more kids go to college.
Education pays off. There are no guarantees, but for students who work hard, education and training often mean a lifetime of higher earnings. A better educated workforce pays off for the rest of us too. The GI Bill helped thousands of graduates lead our country to a half-century economic boom that lifted all boats – and that was the envy of the world. Today, the most innovative businesses seek out well-trained workers who can partner with them to build a stronger future.
Investments in education cost money, and where we spend our money reflects our deepest priorities as a country. In the past few weeks, Congress voted to protect subsidies for oil companies and special tax breaks for billionaires. That money could have been invested in our public colleges and universities, in advanced technical training programs, or in stronger grant programs. It is time for Washington’s priorities to line up with the students and their families who are working hard to build a real future.
A generation of young people already faces a mountain of student debt. Congress must act quickly to ensure that student loan interest rates stay at a reasonable level. Over time, we need to make consistent, thoughtful, and well-planned investments in education. Our children, our families, and our future depend on it.