Too many facing college cost nightmares

Shortly after my 18th birthday, I enrolled at St. Joseph’s University for the start of my freshman year of college. It was an exciting time for me and my whole family — and a proud moment for my parents who, as first generation in this country and the children of Irish immigrants, did not go on to school beyond high school. And I was a chemistry major, a subject my dad was good at in high school but didn’t get a chance to pursue himself.

Now, with mom and dad raising 10 kids on the salary of a policeman and a restaurant hostess, there was no way my parents could “write the check” for school. But my education was affordable. The tuition and room and board expenses were significant, but not ridiculous. And I made it work with the scholarship I earned plus a modest loan.

In the weeks ahead, students across this country will feel the same excitement I felt as they head to campus.

But with all the promise that comes with a new semester, students and families today are faced with a reality much different than I experienced: truly out-of-this-world college costs.

The impact: College is simply beyond reach for many young people. And for others, it presents the prospect of many years of struggling with a mountain of debt and perhaps the prospect of parents and grandparents, too, being saddled with the burden.

I hear college cost nightmares all the time on the campaign trail: A young woman in Scranton, pursuing a doctorate and working full time, who still owes nearly $200,000; the student leader at a Philadelphia college whose classmates changed majors from subjects they love to endeavors that will be lucrative if not very fulfilling; the tour guide at a Pittsburgh college who has no answer for concerned students and parents about costs since she herself is struggling mightily.

These are hardworking, committed students. This country needs them to be able to discover and develop their talents without bankrupting themselves and their families. Frankly, the economy needs young people to be taking flight as productive earners and consumers — buying homes, starting families and launching businesses upon graduation, not a decade or more later.

Fixing this problem is near and dear to my heart, and I will take it with me to the U.S. Senate.

This week I’m announcing some specific solutions.

First, we need to champion policies that strengthen our skilled workforce. Every student should have the opportunity to develop his or her unique talents and skills — whether that is at a certificate program, a two- or four-year university, or through job training. Let’s enable more young people to obtain the skills needed to succeed by passing President Barack Obama’s proposal to make the first two years of community college free for hardworking students.

And in the Senate, I will lead the fight to restore funding to job training and apprenticeship programs, and sign on to proposals that offer tax credits and other incentives to employers who invest in their workers.

I am proud to say that my brothers are skilled tradesmen: heavy equipment operators, an X-ray certified welder and a printer. It is essential that we provide American workers with a pathway to succeed in the skilled trades. And let’s create good jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure.

For those who do choose to pursue a four-year degree, I’ll push to put a lid on the cost of college. Let’s insist schools keep tuition costs down, and then link federal support directly to schools’ success in controlling costs. Fancy dorms or gyms — schools have to do that on their dime, not the taxpayer’s. I am proud to support Secretary Clinton’s initiative to make public universities debt free for families with incomes up to $125,000 by 2021.

Let’s move now to ease the burden on middle-class families paying for college. Let’s expand — and make permanent — the American opportunity tax credit so that middle-class families get a tax break for college. And let’s stand strong for the Pell Grant program. Nearly 300,000 Pennsylvanians depend on Pell Grants and I’ll fight for those families.

Finally, have you seen where interest rates are? They are at historic lows. Let’s back Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to enable families to take advantage of those rates and refinance.

A great education is central to the American dream. I wouldn’t be running for Senate today were it not for the opportunity to go to a great school, and to graduate knowing I was free to follow my calling.

In the Senate, I will pay it back, by always standing with students and families.

Katie McGinty is a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.