Millions of middle-class families across the country are feeling squeezed, with wages that haven’t recovered from the recession, and costs of living going up.
One of the fastest growing expenses for middle-class families is the rising cost of going to college. According to the federal Department of Labor, the price of college tuition grew by nearly 80 percent from 2003 to 2013. That’s nearly twice as fast as the growth in costs in health care — another of those costs that are making middle-class families feel squeezed. As a country, we now spend more of our income on higher education than ever before, and nearly two-thirds more than the average in the industrialized world.
The result for middle-class families is that the squeeze just keeps getting tighter. Americans owe more in student loan debt — $1.3 trillion — than we owe in credit card debt, a fact that would have been unthinkable just 20 years ago. And with nearly $30,000 owed per student for new college graduates, Ohio has one of the highest student loan burdens of any state in the country.
That’s why a lot of talented kids in Ohio today feel like going to college is out of reach.
And if they do go to college, the student loan debt burden is weighing on their minds, and it’s holding back a lot of young graduates from buying that first house, buying a car, or even getting married or having kids. That has negative consequences across our economy.
Congress has got to take this issue head on. That starts with dealing with the immediate problem of high debt. I supported the bill that ultimately became the bipartisan law that kept student loan rates from going up in 2013. It was important legislation because it lowered and stabilized the loan rates of 11 million Americans and saved the average college undergraduate $1,500.
I’m building on that effort with bipartisan legislation I introduced recently called the Go to High School, Go to College Act, which would allow high school students from low-income backgrounds to earn tuition-free college credits while they’re still in high school. If this bill becomes law, participating high school students will be able to earn up to an Associates Degree for free, getting a head start on college and reducing the number of credits they need to graduate. That makes them more likely to graduate from high school and college, makes a better use of our taxpayer dollars, and sets these kids up to enter the workforce with less debt.
I also believe that this bill would encourage early college programs to be made available in more places around our country to expand access to college.
I’m also a sponsor of a bill called the Repay Act, which would give students the ability to choose the repayment plan that meets their needs. Under our legislation, students could choose a 10-year fixed repayment plan or an income-based repayment plan that would ensure that they never pay more than 15 percent of their disposable income. Having these options would ensure that they can manage day-to-day expenses like rent, groceries, and buying a car while still making progress in paying down their student loans. Depending on the amount of the loan, after 20 to 25 years, the loan would be forgiven. This legislation would give millions of Americans more peace of mind.
This legislation would be good for our economy, and great for our students.
Making student loans easier to manage is important, but I believe it’s just as important to reduce the amount of debt needed to get a degree. That’s why I led the effort in Congress to extend the Perkins Loan program, which is a financial aid program helping more than 25,000 Ohio students at 60 schools right now with $47.7 million in financial assistance. We succeeded in that effort, and it is paying off for young people in Ohio.
Starting college with up to two years’ worth of credits, and starting a career with less student loan debt can have a lifetime of benefits, especially for young people who come from low-income backgrounds. The Repay Act and the Go to High School, Go to College Act would put thousands of kids on a path to live out their dreams, and Congress should pass them right away.
Rob Portman is a U.S. senator from Ohio.