Earlier this month, I visited the University of Minnesota to hear from students about the impact of student debt. I heard stories like Kirsten’s. She recently graduated from Minneapolis Community and Technical College and plans to get a bachelor’s degree. But she already has $30,000 in student loans, making it difficult to pursue her goals. Student debt has nearly tripled over the past eight years. In Minnesota, the average student debt for graduates is now nearly $30,000, the third-highest in the country.

Yet as students struggle with rising college tuition and more debt, Republicans in Congress are trying to increase student loan rates. It’s time for students to speak out and demand action from Washington to lower, not raise, student debt.

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill introduced by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., that would replace a current fixed student loan interest rate of 3.4 percent with a rate that could go as high as 10.5 percent. Under this bill, a student who borrows the maximum amount of a subsidized Stafford Loan would pay $2,000 in interest alone over five years, more than double what she is paying now.

Higher education is the gateway into the middle class. Students with an associate degree earn over $5,000 more than students with a high school diploma. Students with a bachelor’s degree earn still more.

When higher education is less accessible, we all pay the price. Nothing grows the gap between rich and poor more than relegating higher education to only those who can afford it. In an era when an increasing share of the nation’s wealth is already going to the richest 0.1 percent of Americans, we owe it to our students to make college more affordable. When workers are still paying thousands in student loans each year, they are unable to spend that money on a home or elsewhere in the economy. According to the Center for American Progress, 2 million more adults between 18 and 34 still live with their parents than did before the recession.

Students are already defaulting on their loans. Over 9 percent of students default on federal loans within the first two years. If one student is unable to pay her student loans, that’s her problem. If millions of students default, it becomes our nation’s problem.

At a time when our competitors are investing in education, now is the time for America to increase investments in our students. The United States recently finished 25th in math and 17th in science compared with 31 other countries. By 2018, nearly two-thirds of all U.S. jobs are expected to require postsecondary education.

I support a better way to help students go to college. I recently cosponsored the House version of a bill authored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to lend money to students at the same rate we lend it to the banks who wrecked our economy in 2008. If banks are able to enjoy interest rates of less than 1 percent, so should our students.

Ultimately, it is a question of what kind of nation we want. Do we want a nation that values education, or corporate profits? Do we want to give everyone in the richest country in the history of the world a shot at the American Dream, or just a select few? If our nation has any responsibility, it’s to make sure people can afford a quality education. It’s time to stand up for Minnesota’s students.


Keith Ellison, a Democrat, represents Minnesota’s Fifth District in the U.S. House.