This summer, while millions of American students worked, studied, or readied for the fall semester, the U.S. Senate engaged in a heated debate over the issue of federal student loan interest rates. It’s true that the Senate ultimately passed a compromise agreement, but the legislation and debate largely missed the bigger picture. It is the skyrocketing cost of higher education — not the interest rate on student loans — putting college out of reach for millions of American families.
As the youngest U.S. senators, the problem of college and graduate school affordability is a reality we face in our own households. Like so many other families across the country, we and our spouses continue to pay off our own student loans at the same time we are saving for our children’s college funds. As Congress prepares to take up the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we know that incremental reform of our nation’s higher education system will not do. We need aggressive reform whereby federal dollars do not simply subsidize out of control costs, but instead create real incentives for schools to lower the cost of college.
While our economy still struggles to regain jobs lost during the recession, a college degree is even more critical to compete for good-paying jobs. The average unemployment rate in 2012 was 8.3 percent for those with just a high school degree, and 4.5 percent for those with a college degree. Yet the cost of college, which has increased by 300 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since our parents graduated, is putting a degree out of reach for millions of Americans. And as America seeks to remain competitive in a global economy, we are actually quickly falling behind. The United States once had one of the highest college graduation rates among industrialized nations, but its rate for 25 to 34 year-olds has now fallen to 12th place.