We need to tackle student debt

Soaring student debt is a problem that only Congress can answer. Until it acts, students and their families will keep falling deeper into debt.

For years, state support of higher education has dropped drastically, pushing tuitions up. At the same time, most American families have seen their incomes shrink, forcing them to borrow more and more if they want to send their kids to college. It’s no wonder the total amount of money Americans owe for higher education is now more than what we owe on credit cards.

We need our colleges to thrive. An affordable college education has been a key to the rising standard of living that our country enjoyed for many decades. It provided us with educated workers who made our industries successful.

Access to college in the future would buffer our country from many of the shocks in the coming decades. We would be better prepared to support the new growth industries, and we would have voters better able to hold our public officials accountable.

Congress took a few steps in the last few years to address the student debt problem. It raised federal funding for higher education. When it passed President Obama’s stimulus package, it provided desperately needed funds for state colleges in 2010-11. Last year, Congress kicked the banks out of the subsidized student loan business. The Obama administration is now cracking down on for-profit colleges that have been pushing loans on unqualified students.

But Congress must do more. It needs to increase support for student loans. And it needs to provide more funding for state colleges that serve the most students.

To pay for this, Congress should eliminate the outrageous tax breaks that President Bush gave to the millionaires and billionaires. Educating the next generation is much more important than continually padding the bank accounts of the wealthy.

One last thing: Congress shouldn’t focus on providing just glorified job training. Every American deserves access to real higher education so as to learn how to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship and appreciate the cultural treasures that our ancestors have left to us.

Making college affordable is the best investment in our country’s economic and political future. And it’s the honorable thing to do for strapped students and families.

• Castellblanch is an associate professor of health education at San Francisco State University.

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