The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

May 18, 2014

West Virginians deserve a fair shot at an affordable college education

Spring is such an exciting time for students across the state — whether they’re looking forward to starting college in the fall, or they are college seniors or graduate students eager to launch their careers.

When I was president at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, I enjoyed talking with students about their futures — and especially how their education would enrich their lives.

Studies show that a college education is one of the surest paths to economic opportunity. In fact, for the average worker, a college degree means $1 million more in earnings over a lifetime compared to those with a high school diploma.

Job training programs and vocational degrees also make job-seekers more skilled and competitive. West Virginia’s community and technical colleges are essential to building our state’s workforce by putting students on a path to high-skilled jobs and careers in emerging fields.

These educational opportunities only live up to those promises if they are in reach for everyone — not just a privileged few. But recently, I’ve heard too many stories from West Virginians who’ve been saddled with crushing debt. And for others, the high costs of a higher education have put it completely out of reach.

This is not just heartbreaking, but it’s also senseless to hold our students back from reaching their goals. If we are truly dedicated to giving everyone the chance to fulfill their goals and secure a good job, we have to make these educational opportunities more affordable from the onset and make student loans more manageable over time.

As someone who has worked in higher education and seen, first-hand, the doors to opportunity that education can open, I have always made it a priority to help students afford their dream of higher education. I’ve pushed to expand federal Pell Grant funding, and supported loan consolidation programs and income-based repayments that make student loans more manageable for recent grads and young professionals.

I also supported the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program which, starting in 2017, will give students who commit to at least 10 years of post-graduate teaching, or other public service jobs, forgiveness of their remaining loan balance. And I created the Noyce Scholarship Program to provide scholarships for math and science students who commit to teaching.

More recently, I joined many of my colleagues this Congress in heading off a potentially devastating interest rate hike on student loans. This has resulted in giving undergraduate students access to historically low interest rates on their student loans. But while the deal gave students some much-needed relief, it was only a short-term fix. We can’t let that be the end to our conversation on college affordability.

Going forward, we have to focus more directly on removing the barriers that are keeping young people from getting the education they need to succeed. Everyone deserves a fair shot at pursuing a job that provides them with security and stability. This is necessary if our nation is going to build a workforce that will allow our country to compete in the global economy, now and in the future.

I am determined to help make America more competitive, to ensure that our workers have the skills they need to compete, and to help all Americans get ahead. That starts with making higher education more affordable and opening the doors to this opportunity for all West Virginians.

— Jay Rockefeller is the senior senator representing West Virginia in Washington, D.C.

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