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Camille Rivera Headshot

The Student Debt Trap

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As I watch my 17-year-old daughter Samantha thumb through university catalogs, study for her SATs and chatter with her friends about going off to college, my heart fills with pride.

But I also shiver with fear when I think about skyrocketing tuition, climbing interest rates for student loans, and the crushing debt she and her friends will face after finishing school, especially in the current job market.

I cannot help but wonder what lies ahead for her as college costs approach the $40,000 a year mark, as total student debt crosses the $1 trillion mark, and while Republicans in Congress play politics with college graduates' financial future as they debate whether to keep student loan interest low -- or let it double on July 1st.

Education is a key to success and to the ability to pursue the American Dream. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts median income for college grads at $1,152 a week, almost double the income of someone with just a high school diploma.

A quality education should be within everyone's grasp, but, increasingly our colleges are becoming enclaves for the elite because of the double whammy of unaffordable tuition and suffocating debt.

A recent New York Times/CBS poll found what anyone who has been paying attention to the message of the Occupy movement or campus protests already knows: two-thirds of Americans believe there is too wide a gap between the haves and have-nots -- the one percent and the rest of us.

Rising tuition will only make it worse.

The statistics are overwhelming. College tuition and fees are almost six times higher than they were in 1985, while consumer prices have only doubled in that time.

According to the College Board, between 2002 and 2012, in-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities increased at an average rate of 5.6 percent per year beyond the rate of inflation.

And CNN reported that tuition at the average public university increased eight percent in the last year and is expected to go higher.

At this moment, the national average of yearly tuition is about $30,000 to $40,000 a year at private, four-year colleges. Most of us in the 99 percent don't have anywhere near that kind of money.

Here in New York, the City University (CUNY) system -- which was once free of charge -- is raising tuition by 31 percent over the next five years.

The State system has enacted similar raises. As tuition has increased, and government aid has decreased, fewer young people have access to a college education. In fact, the percentage of working class people of color attending CUNY has decreased over the years.

Across the state, students -- 99 percenters from working class and low-income families -- have raised their voices in protest, but to no avail.

This means that Samantha, like millions of other working class students, will have to take out hefty college loans.

Until recently, she could have counted on government support to ensure that those loans had low interest rates. But Republicans in Congress seem determined to allow the interest rate for Stafford loans to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1st for seven million students nationwide.

This would affect 400,000 students in New York alone. Doubling loan rates would cost New York's students and their families $419.7 million.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the average student owes more than $23,000, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000, and three percent owing over $100,000.

It makes me crazy to think that when Samantha graduates, she could be burdened with $40,000 to $50,000 in debt as she starts her new life.

She and her friends will have to look for jobs knowing that it could be many years before they can even start thinking about raising a family or owning a home -- or even a decent car.

Their only hope is that Congress gets its act together to keep student loan interest rates low, and that President Obama makes good on his promise to cut funding to colleges that don't rein in tuition costs.

The outcome is not just the only hope for Samantha's generation -- it is the only hope for us all.