Mortgaging a Future

Angie Craig

If you ask Renee Rippberger’s parents to name their proudest moment as parents, they won’t hesitate to tell you that it was the day they watched their daughter open her acceptance letter to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Minnesota families have always understood the value and power of a quality education.

And that’s what makes the student loan debt crisis so unsettling.

This issue is personal to me. Growing up, I watched my mom work hard for nearly a decade to earn her college degree and teaching credentials, all while making ends meet and raising three kids as a single parent. She taught us that a college degree was within our grasp as long as we worked hard. I have tried to pass down those same principles to my four boys. But with the rising cost of college and soaring levels of student debt, that lesson isn’t as straightforward as it should be.

Renee graduated from Burnsville High School a few years ago. Now, she’s a rising senior at the University of Minnesota. So far, she’s borrowed nearly $25,000 for her Bachelor’s degree. By the time Renee walks across the stage to receive her diploma, she’ll be carrying nearly $32,000 in student loan debt — an amount she fears will take over a decade to pay down.

Unfortunately, Renee isn’t alone. 70 percent of all Minnesota’s college graduates have taken on some form of debt in order to finish their education. The average debt load? $27,578. There are only four states in the country where getting your degree leaves a bigger dent in your pocketbook.

There’s a saying that gets tossed around a lot — that today’s students are “mortgaging their future” in exchange for a degree. Well, there might be more truth to that than we thought. A recent study from the National Association of Realtors found that 71 percent of non-homeowners with student loan debt said they believe that debt has delayed homeownership. Despite making what they’re told are the right decisions, students are taking on a burden that is pushing a critical part of the American Dream out of reach.

The payments Renee will make toward her $32,000 debt is money she won’t be banking for her first down payment on a home or saving for retirement. She said she gave up on the dream of homeownership when she saw her third bill. The alternative many recent grads are facing? Moving back in with their parents — a step more and more young people are taking. It’s the most common living arrangement of young adults aged 18-34 as of 2014 according to a Pew Research study.

It’s a huge drag on our economy, and it’s just wrong.

In the 21st century economy, a highly-educated workforce is essential to our competitiveness. When our leaders in Washington fail to support students like Renée, they’re failing to support the future of the middle class.

I’m running for Congress to fight for policies that make it easier for any American who wants a college education to make that dream a reality. In Congress, I’ll work to alleviate the crushing burden of student loans. We can begin helping future students by strengthening Pell Grants. If Pell Grants were indexed to the Consumer Price Index to keep up with rising costs, 9.2 million students would see an increase of $1,300. We should also help those who have already taken on student loan debt by allowing them to refinance their loans at a lower interest rate.

The private sector should be part of the solution, too. Across the board, we’re seeing more employers offer a new perk: student loan reimbursement. By making student loan payments part of a benefits package, companies aren’t just helping their recruiting and retention efforts — they’re helping grow the economy. Congress can help more companies do right by their employees by incentivizing student loan reimbursement with a business tax credit.

This is about renewing America’s most basic bargain: if you work hard, take responsibility, and play by the rules, you should have the opportunity to succeed. For too many families like Renée’s across the District and state, the high cost of education is undermining that bargain. We simply shouldn’t accept that. And we don’t have to; we can do better for our students. As a mother of four and the daughter of a public school teacher, education is a top priority. That’s why I’ll tackle the student loan crisis head-on in Congress.

Angie Craig, DFL-endorsed candidate for Minnesota’s Second Congressional District

Editor’s Note: The second half of this letter will be published on Monday; the letter has been edited for accuracy.