04/26/2012 05:14 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2012

Making College Affordable

When I was growing up in Harlem, college was a remote possibility even for the most fortunate black and Hispanic students. But times have changed for the better, and today's young minority men and women should expect nothing less from themselves than a college degree. Moreover, they should demand nothing less from their country than affordable options for a higher education. Congress must take action to make college accessible for everyone.

On April 25 the total amount of student loan debt in the U.S. topped one trillion dollars. This staggering economic milestone marks a momentous victory for the top 1 percent over two generations of students and families. In 2007, Congress passed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which temporarily cut in half interest rates on subsidized student loans. This Act provided temporary relief for American college students, but it is set to expire on July 1, forcing more than seven million American students and parents to pay an average of $1,000 every year in additional interest on federal loans.

My Democratic colleagues and I are working hard to extend this financial relief for the young Americans who most need it. In order to keep interest rates at 3.4 percent, House Democrats have proposed the Stop the Rate Hike Act of 2012, which ends unwarranted tax subsidies to big oil and gas companies. Republicans have different priorities. They are trying to eliminate student aid by proposing that average and low-income American families pay for it out of their health care. The Republican bill slashes funding for breast and cervical cancer screenings for women, and strips funding for child immunization and screening tests for newborns. They want to make Democrats choose between the vital health care needs of Americans and financial assistance for students. It is clear that Republicans are only interested in representing the interests of Big Oil and the wealthiest Americans.

If Republicans allow student loan interest rates to double, they will further impede 900,000 high school graduates from enrolling in college, especially the 300,000 black and Hispanic students who every year leave high school without taking the necessary steps to get the knowledge and skills that college provides. In order to train and mobilize these young Americans, Congress must take steps to eliminate the financial hurdles that make it difficult or impossible to pursue higher education.

Over the next four years, three million American students will leave high school and forgo a world class education that would provide them with more opportunities to succeed. These young men and women, if trained in our colleges and universities, could provide the skills and leadership that our industries sorely need to maximize our economic potential.

For over a century we have boasted the world's largest economy. Today, however, China threatens to surpass us in terms of purchasing power by 2016. The easy explanation of America's waning economic hegemony is that over a billion Chinese are embracing modernization on an unprecedented scale, while our country is still recovering from the economic recession that began under the Bush Administration. I am proud to have co-sponsored the Student Loan Forgiveness and The American College Tax Relief Act to help our students pursue the American Dream without being saddled by debt. While these initiatives can help make college a reality for millions of Americans, we need to do more.

President Barack Obama is touring the nation's college campuses, telling students to demand action from Congress to make college more affordable. He is right: Congress must act now to keep interest rates low on subsidized government loans. This will expand our skilled workforce and help us extend rather than relinquish our economic lead over China. We should take a lesson from the history books and once again invest in our nation's youth.