|Keeping college dreams alive|
Chellie talks about addressing problems with student loans and skyrocketing tuitions
On May 19, I had the privilege of giving the commencement address at the University of New England and receiving an honorary degree. I couldn't help but make a joke that earning this degree took a 10-minute speech, whereas my undergraduate work took me six years to complete!
But the truth is that the things I learned and the people I met at College of the Atlantic were well worth the time. And I'm sure the time this year's graduates have spent at UNE and other colleges across the country will also serve them well. College is still our most reliable path to the American Dream: it gives people the skills and credentials to launch productive careers, start businesses, and earn enough to provide for their families. As parents, it's still what we want for our kids.
But I'm worried that mounting costs are threatening to close this path. Things are much different than when I went to college 40 years ago. A combination of skyrocketing tuition costs, a tough job market, and rising loan interest rates is burying today's graduates under a mountain of debt. With such a mounting burden, the country is questioning whether the benefits of a college education are worth the cost.
We dearly need to address this problem—Maine is second highest in the nation for average student loan debt. But unfortunately things are only set to get worse. In 2007, Congress passed a law to lower the interest rate for federal student loans from 6.8 to 3.4 percent. But the law will expire this summer, and partisan politics have kept Congress from extending it.
Other problems have arisen with private loans. Lack of regulation on these loans has led to a number of unfair practices. Unlike federal loans, private lenders do not have to offer repayment plans based on someone's income or a temporary break if a graduate loses their job. They can also raise rates without accountability. We need to do more to protect students and families who depend on these loans to finance their education.
But lending is only half the problem—it's impossible to ignore the skyrocketing tuition rates we've seen over the last 10 years. These rates have gone up far faster than students' ability to pay them. Much of the problem seems to be shrinking investment from states in their university systems, effectively pushing on the costs to students and their families. But there are many other factors contributing to the rising costs, and we need to do far more to address them.
I'm glad that President Obama has taken this issue seriously. In his latest State of the Union Address, he announced a series of initiatives to invest in our universities while holding schools accountable for rising costs and providing incentives for keeping costs down. These programs would need Congress' approval and I look forward to reviewing them closely once they're introduced.
In the meantime, we have to do something to keep students from getting in deep holes they can never climb out of. Congress needs to put its differences aside to keep interest rates low for students. I have cosponsored legislation to extend the lower rates indefinitely, and also support proposals to forgive loans for teachers after five years and for everyone after 20 years.
It's clear that access to education is more important than ever. In a global marketplace, today's students will have to work even harder, smarter, and quicker to compete with people across the globe. Maine is making great gains in competing in this new marketplace. We're using innovative practices to rebuild manufacturing, broadband Internet to serve the globe, and technology to improve health care. But these are not jobs you can get with a high school diploma alone. They require higher education, whether that means a degree from a technical school, public college, or private university.
Maine's economy won't move forward without today's graduates—and they can't move forward without our help.