Students need great advocate on Capitol Hill

I am a proud Golden Bear. Every day in Congress, I carry with me the lessons that I learned on campus from my professors and my fellow students.

Like many others, I would not be where I am today — serving you in Congress — without my time at UC Berkeley.

While a college degree does not guarantee success in today’s economy, it’s the single best bet for getting ahead. As a nation, we must ensure that every student, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to access a high quality, affordable education.

When I attended UC Berkeley, our nation actively invested in students and their futures. Sadly, that bipartisan commitment to our next generation has virtually disappeared.

As the cost of higher education rose and household incomes stagnated, Congress sat on the sidelines. Meanwhile, the dream of a college degree moved further and further out of reach for many young people.

These impacts have been especially devastating on low-income students and students of color, for whom a college degree is essential to leveling the economic playing field.

The rising costs of college have forced many students to rack up huge amounts of debt. And while most federal loans intend for graduates to be debt free in 10 years, studies show the average loan holder actually takes 21 years to pay off their degree.

Clearly, student loan debt is out of control.  When this year’s freshman class graduates, student loan debt in America is expected to reach $2 trillion.

Student debt is holding an entire generation hostage. It’s preventing young people from starting businesses, saving for retirement, having children and purchasing homes. That has ripple effects across our entire economy.

As a nation, we can’t continue to leave our young people and their families stranded. Nor can we allow the dream of obtaining a college degree to slip away from talented and hardworking students.

It’s past time for Congress to provide students with pathways to debt-free education.

We should pass the ACCESS Act, or H.R.242, which would ensure Pell Grants are available for students studying during summer sessions. This would enable bright, eager students to expedite their studies and make it into the workforce faster.

We also need broader systemic change. Earlier this year, I worked with people from all across our nation – experts and regular working people — to craft the most progressive and forward-thinking Democratic Party platform ever. Our platform clearly stated, “Democrats are unified in their strong belief that every student should be able to go to college debt-free, and working families should not have to pay any tuition to go to public colleges and universities.”

We also must commit to enacting bold new federal investments and state reinvestments in our colleges, but more importantly, in our nation’s young people.

I know that Secretary Hillary Clinton also shares these values and will work with us to make it a reality. Qualified students and their families should not have to give up their dreams of a college degree because they cannot foot the bill.

We must also help the millions of graduates who are drowning in student debt.

Unfortunately, my Republican colleagues have proven themselves completely disinterested in addressing this crisis. House Speaker Paul Ryan refuses to allow us a vote on the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, or H.R. 1434, which would ensure that graduates received the same low interest rates that big banks benefit from.  

Nor will he allow us to bring up the Student Loan Interest Deduction Act, or H.R. 509, which would double the allowed tax-deduction on student debt.

These are simple measures that could save recent graduates thousands of dollars. We need to get serious about investing in our young people and their futures, because young graduates shouldn’t start their careers beneath a mountain of debt.

I am so proud and humbled to represent you and the UC Berkeley community on Capitol Hill. I will keep fighting to make college affordable so our Golden Bears community can grow and thrive!

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, is a member of the House Appropriations and Budget Committees. She earned her Masters of Social Work at UC Berkeley.

Read the original at the Daily Californian.