This fall, thousands of students across Oregon are pursuing the dream of higher education. Between starting classes and settling in, students and their families are also making difficult financial decisions about how to pay for their education.
When I went to college, I worked my way through with a combination of grants, loans and work study. I started at community college, then earned an undergraduate degree, and after that went to law school. It wasn't always easy, but I was able to graduate with a manageable amount of debt. Importantly, my education prepared me for a career that allowed me to repay the loans in a reasonable amount of time.
Higher education is one of the smartest investments we canmake. Study after study shows that a good college education translates to higher pay for families, a stronger economy and a more enlightened public. Unfortunately, the burden of paying for higher education has steadily shifted more and more to working families. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the outstanding balance of student loan debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1.4 trillion. In northwest Oregon, I've heard from many Oregonians about the hardship of taking on student loan debt, and about how that debt might affect the ability to get ahead financially and reach other important life goals.
In Congress, I'm working to improve college access and affordability. I have led efforts to improve financial counseling so borrowers can better anticipate the complete costs of college and make informed decisions. Additionally, I'm working with my colleagues in Congress to improve the work study program so more students with financial need can earn money in college and get relevant work experience.
I am also committed to protecting funding for programs like Pell Grants and child care subsidies for student parents. Recently I spoke with a single mother who is a student. She was able to complete her education because of support received through Pell grants and similar programs — and she had just returned from a research fellowship abroad. In an increasingly complex and globalized society, stories like hers remind us that it is more important than ever to continue investing in the potential of our future leaders.
We must also work to reduce the burden of educational debt. I have opposed attempts to end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which encourages graduates to give back to their communities by allowing borrowers who work in public service to extinguish their loan balance after ten years of making payments. And I've introduced legislation with Senator [Ron] Wyden to get — and keep — more borrowers in income-based repayment plans. Our bipartisan SIMPLE Act (Streamlining Income-driven, Manageable Payments on Loans for Education) streamlines enrollment and eliminates unnecessary paperwork.
Congress has both admirable goals
and real challenges ahead as we consider updates to the Higher Education Act — the federal law governing higher education. But I'm optimistic that, if we do our homework and keep our eye onbuilding a better future, we can make higher education a reality for more Americans.
Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat, represents Oregon's First Congressional District, including Columbia, Clatsop, Washington and Yamhill counties and parts of southwest Multnomah County. She can be contacted through her district office at 503-469-6010.