We can do more to open higher education doors

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer

At some point in their lives, 40 million Americans opened up a letter or email from a lender and saw exactly the same thing: a student loan repayment statement.

The average debt they carry is $29,000. That’s why our nationwide student loan debt tops $1.3 trillion, exceeding credit card debt and just behind home mortgages.

We face a challenge in the 21st century. On one hand, whether you go to work in a factory or an office park, more jobs are requiring more skills. The Department of Education has noted that by some estimates, 66 percent of job openings by 2020 will require some form of higher education. On the other hand, the sticker-shock of attending college – from tuition to books to housing – has never been greater.

Families and individuals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Folks want to make sure they can get ahead but don’t want to fall in a deep financial hole. It’s hard to start a business or take a chance on that new job if you are carrying around a pile of student debt.

Our economy is built on people being able to take risks, but that becomes less likely when you owe so much money. These days millennials are even delaying buying a home or starting a family. Parents have seen kids move back to the family home at rates not seen in four decades.

Something needs to change. With education becoming more important for employment, we’ve got to make getting a certificate, two- or four-year degree more affordable.

We know that education is the door to opportunity. For a lot of families – including mine – financial aid is the key to that door. One of America’s main keys is the Pell Grant program.

These grants have been used by millions of middle and low-income students to go to college, including eight million Americans in 2015. But this tool has gotten rusty.

In 1980 Pell Grants covered 77 percent of the cost of attending a four-year public university. In 2015, they covered just 30 percent. Despite that, a congressional budget proposal offered last year would have frozen the maximum Pell Grant award for 10 years.

We need a new approach. That’s why this week I introduced the Pathways to an Affordable Education Act.

First, the bill proposes restoring the purchasing power of Pell Grants, increasing awards from $5,775 to $9,139 and pegging them to inflation. In doing so, Pell Grants would cover the average cost of in-state tuition at a four-year public university.

Second, the bill restores the ability of students to use Pell Grants year-round. For students juggling employment or families, summer school is often a necessity. Students in need should have help covering summer school.

Third, my bill makes program funding mandatory so students aren’t at the mercy of year-to-year funding fluctuations and failures of Congress to meet the need. Under the current discretionary approach, we’ve seen students too often left in limbo by routine budget battles.

Finally, the bill would expose students earlier to the power of Pell Grants. By shining a spotlight on the Pell Grant’s benefits, more students will recognize – and pursue – this opportunity.

There’s one problem this bill won’t solve that deserves more thought: It doesn’t address the tuition increases we’ve seen in recent years.

That’s a question worthy of further study. But the reality is, as state support has declined and tuition has increased in Washington and elsewhere, federal financial aid hasn’t kept up. That’s made higher education even less affordable.

We can change that. Earlier this month I had the privilege of visiting the class of the phenomenal educator Nathan Gibbs-Bowling at Lincoln High. He was named Washington’s teacher of the year and is one of only four finalists for the national award.

He grew up in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood and, in receiving his award, mentioned his desire to “continue lifting up the Tacoma community.”

I couldn’t agree more. We can do that – for Gibbs-Bowling’s students and others – by helping them pursue careers that inspire them. We can do that by educating more people to higher levels.

We can do that by giving folks a shot at an affordable education.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, represents Washington’s 6th Congressional District.