Ease the burden of student loan debt

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If you listen to the news, you might hear about an economic recovery. But if you listen to your neighbors, you are probably hearing a different story.

For too many Maine residents, the security that comes from a good job seems just out of reach. American workers are more productive than ever, yet their paychecks are not growing and the price of everyday essentials continues to rise.

Nowhere is this more evident than the crushing level of student debt needed to earn a college degree.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans leave college saddled with student-loan debt that limits their ability to pursue the American dream. Here in Maine, graduating college seniors had an average of $29,934 in debt in 2013, yet the per-capita income in Androscoggin County is just $22,752.

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A college degree, whether from a community college or a four-year college or university, opens doors to career opportunities and economic security. But the student loan debt crisis has far-reaching implications for the economy.

Young adults who finish college burdened with debt hold back on purchases that were once common for young families, such as buying cars and houses — things that make the economy stronger and the middle class more secure.

While there is no easy solution to growing America’s middle class, we are both committed to taking steps at the state and federal level to help college graduates pursue their careers without being weighed down by the extreme burdens of student loan debt.

This past spring, I introduced a bill as U.S. Rep. from Wisconsin that would allow student-loan borrowers to refinance their loans — a common practice for mortgages and car loans.

The bill would have allowed nearly 40 million Americans to refinance their student loans when a lower interest rate becomes available, reducing the long-term cost of a college degree, giving our college graduates greater financial flexibility, and growing our economy in the process.

Unfortunately, this common sense solution was blocked by big banks and the financial industry. However, we are encouraged that today we are seeing real attention paid to the student-loan debt crisis for the first time in years — from both sides of the aisle.

Even Republican Senator and presidential candidate Lindsey Graham has said he is on board with allowing borrowers to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates. In recent years, we have also been able to make progress in protecting students from student loan debt on the local level.

During my time in the Maine Legislature, I worked with members of both parties to pass a bill that educated students on potential risks associated with carrying too much student debt.

Skyrocketing student loan debt is suffocating our economy and eating away at America’s middle class. Instead of concerning themselves with how to please their friends on Wall Street, members of Congress should address the heavy burden of student loan debt, which is a disadvantage for students as they set out to compete in a global economy.

We need more leaders in Congress who are committed to tackling the challenges facing hard-working students just trying to get a fair shot at success. We need leaders who are willing to work across the aisle and vote for common-sense bills like the one Congressman Pocan put forward to ease student-loan debt.

On Monday, we were in the Lewiston area to talk with Mainers about student-loan debt and what we can do to make college more affordable for Maine’s young people. We visited Central Maine Community College to tour the facilities on campus and continue to spread the word. We hope Washington is listening.

Rebuilding our middle class requires a higher education system that works for every American, which is why we will continue to support the mission of our nation’s two- and four-year colleges and universities, just like we have during our time in Congress and in the Maine State Legislature.

College debt should not be a roadblock for hard-working Mainers, Wisconsinites, or anyone across the country to earning a fair shot at their dream jobs and careers.

Rep. Mark Pocan is a Democratic congressman from Madison, Wisc. He currently serves on the House Budget Committee and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Emily Cain is a candidate for Congress who previously represented the people of Penobscot County in the Maine Legislature. She currently works with Jobs for Maine Graduates helping Maine students achieve their full educational potential beyond high school. She lives in Orono.

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