College should be an option for all

I am a proud Golden Bear, one of thousands who received a world-class education at UC Berkeley. I cherish the education I received under the guidance of fantastic faculty and in collaboration with brilliant fellow students.

Here at UC Berkeley, I received my Masters of Social Work. My studies were driven by a conviction that every American should have the resources and opportunities to succeed. That philosophy must be at the heart of our nation’s higher education system.

Sadly, I see the dream of an affordable higher education slip further and further out of reach for many working and middle-class families.

Over the past decade, the annual cost of California’s public four-year colleges has increased by nearly $4,000.

As tuition continues to rise, household incomes have stagnated. As a result, hardworking students are postponing, downsizing and even abandoning their dreams of higher education.

For those who have decided to pursue higher education, the debt from student loans can seem insurmountable. I have heard far too many stories of smart students graduating with mountains of debt.

Nationally, student-loan debt totals more than a trillion dollars and has overtaken credit card debt as the second-largest debt burden on the American economy.

This trillion-dollar student loan debt is holding an entire generation hostage. Young people are delaying major life purchases — such as homes and cars — because of crippling debt.

Rather than address this crisis, however, my Republican colleagues are gutting federal assistance for students and telling them, as Mitt Romney said in 2012, “Borrow money if you have to from your parents.”

I know many of my constituents do not have the option to just “borrow money.” Many face a decision between incurring crippling debt or giving up on higher education.

Next year, the maximum Pell Grant award will cover the smallest percentage of college tuition in the program’s history.

This shocking statistic is proof that our student-loan system needs serious reform. Unfortunately, my Democratic colleagues and I lack serious partners on the other side of the aisle to alleviate this problem.

I’ve co-sponsored several bills to ease the financial burden on students.

I’m a co-sponsor of the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, HR 4582, which would allow students to refinance their student loans and take advantage of lower interest rates currently available for new borrowers.

Another bill I have cosponsored, the Protecting Educational Loans for Underserved Students Act, HR 4480, will prevent discrimination in federal lending due to poor credit history.

As a nation and as a Congress, we need to address the rising cost of college and the debt burden it is creating for millions of Americans. To do this, we need both Democrats and Republicans to get serious about helping our students.

More students should have the opportunity to study in Doe, protest on Sproul and watch our Golden Bears take back the Axe.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a member of the House Appropriations and Budget Committees. She earned her Masters of Social Work at UC Berkeley.

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