As I've launched my campaign to represent Ohio in the U.S. Senate, I've made a special point of listening to a segment of the population to whom candidates don't often pay much attention: college students and recent graduates.
During a recent visit with students at the University of Cincinnati, I listened to several dozen undergraduates share their commitment to pursuing a college degree as an investment in their future. At the same time, they shared their dread in knowing that to attend college they'll pay a steep price for a long time.
One young woman -- the first in her family to go to college -- spoke about the burdensome interest rates on her loans and put it simply: "There's got to be a better way."
The life-affirming moment of graduating from college is tarnished by crushing student loan debt that too many of our graduates carry with them as they walk across the stage. In 2014, the average graduate carried $33,000 in student loan debt, bringing the total student loan debt across the country to more than $1.2 trillion.
Education has always been central to the American Dream: the promise that if you work hard, you can achieve anything. Unfortunately, the skyrocketing cost of student loan debt means that when millions of Americans should be building their careers, starting their families, and pursuing their dreams, they are instead being held back.
The price of a college education has far outpaced inflation in recent decades, and indeed, part of a comprehensive solution must include curbing tuition costs. Because of the current situation, nearly two-thirds of students have been forced to take out loans to cover the cost of four-year public universities. The federal government's student loan program has grown to bridge this gap, but Congress' artificially high interest rates on federally-backed student loans mean that students spend years paying them back.
Student loan debt should not be a partisan issue but rather a challenge that has a common sense solution. Every day that this problem goes unaddressed students are forced to commit a significant percentage of their income to repaying these student loans instead of saving money for a down payment on their first home or investing in a new idea to start a business or simply saving enough money to go out and spend in their local community.
We have to solve this problem by taking it head on, which I do with my "Everyone Deserves a Shot" Initiative. The first prong of the initiative -- slashing interest rates on existing student loan debt by up to 71 percent for those who graduated in the recession and post-recession era -- will substantially reduce the crushing burden for recent graduates. The second step -- forgiving up to one year of federal loans for Pell Grant recipients upon completion of a four-year degree at a public institution -- will improve the affordability of higher education and increase retention rates among low income students, many of whom are students of color.
By allowing students to refinance their existing loans through the "Everyone Deserves a Shot" Initiative at interest rates up that are up to 71 percent lower, this proposal would allow central catalysts for economic growth -- recent college graduates -- to play that role again, setting them up to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations in the future.
Like so many major issues facing our society today, student loan debt disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income students. Leaders in Washington are too often blinded by their partisanship to truly address this disparity in a meaningful way.
Graduates who receive Pell Grants, most of whom have annual family incomes under $30,000, are much more likely to take out federal student loans to help pay for school. Recognizing the urgent need to increase access to the ladder of opportunity in low-income communities, the "Everyone Deserves a Shot" Initiative would allow more low-income students to graduate into higher-paying jobs with less debt and with up to $12,500 more in their pockets.
Our country finds itself at a turning point, and we need leaders who recognize that it is time to reject the stale arguments that have paralyzed Washington and to commit to restoring the virtuous cycle of investing in education, increasing graduation rates across all sectors of society, creating more, higher paying jobs that lead to economic growth and greater revenues, and then reinvesting that revenue to continue the cycle.
The young woman I spoke to at the University of Cincinnati -- and students just like her across Ohio and across the country -- are the key to America's future. Rather than holding them back, let's take the common sense steps to give them a running start.