The House Republican majority recently passed a budget that deeply slashes Pell Grants for nearly 10 million college students and allows student loan interest rates to double in July. While Democrats began working to prevent this interest rate increase, which would cost the average college student about $1,000 per year of school, one Republican member deemed it and rising college costs a “distraction” from our real problems.

What Republicans never seem to understand is that keeping college affordable for students and families is vital not just to the growth of our economy, but to the continued existence of the middle class. In this tough economy, people are turning to colleges and job training because they know that is the future for them, their families and the country.

According to the U.S. Census, the average college graduate makes almost $22,000 more a year than the average worker with a high-school degree. Over the course of a lifetime, that adds up to close to a million dollars in earnings. Meanwhile, about eight in 10 jobs in this economy are beyond the reach of workers who lack a postsecondary credential like an industry certification, occupational credential or college degree.

So access to college is hugely important for families to achieve a middle-class living. But in recent years, that access has been threatened, due to escalating costs. Over the last 30 years, the average tuition at four-year state universities has almost quadrupled. Last year, according to the College Board, costs at public universities and community colleges increased more than 8 percent and at private colleges by 4.5 percent. This school year, at least 25 states have made major cuts to higher education — meaning reduced state aid and higher tuition costs at both public and private universities.

As a result, Americans’ student loan debt, at $865 billion today, now outpaces credit-card debt, at $693 billion. Two-thirds of four-year undergraduate students receiving a bachelor’s degree graduated with debt in 2007-08, and the average student loan debt among graduating seniors was more than $23,000.

We cannot have the country we want if the doors to college are closed to a large number of American families. We fought to pass the largest increase in college aid since the GI bill. And we worked to reform our student loan system so everyone has a chance to go to college.

These reforms cut out the middlemen in student loans, saving billions that were used to increase funding for Pell Grants, Perkins Loans and community colleges. It also limits payments for low-income borrowers to 10 percent of their income, down from 15 percent, and borrowers who make payments for 20 years will see their remaining debt forgiven. Now we are working to ensure that student loan interest rates are maintained at 3.4 percent, rather than having them double at a tough time for families. All of this means more opportunities for students to graduate without a mountain of debt.

Unfortunately, in all of these efforts, Republicans have belittled and even worked against all attempts to make college more affordable. Mitt Romney has promised that, if he were president, students should not expect “government money” to help pay for college, nor should they expect student debt forgiveness.

Instead, Romney recommends that students borrow money from their parents — presuming, of course, that parents have money to lend. He also said if students cannot afford the college they want, they should aim lower. This in keeping with the former governor’s tenure in Massachusetts, when state university costs went up 63 percent due to deep cuts he made to state education funding. Instead of telling students to settle for second best, Romney should go back and look at the enormous benefits the GI bill and student assistance has provided the American middle class.

So should House Republicans. One lawmaker recently said she has “very little tolerance” for those who graduate with student debt. Another called federal student loans the “stage three cancer of socialism.”
Comments like these betray a fundamental lack of understanding about both the value of higher education and how our economy works. We have to find a way to keep college affordable so that millions of students can continue to take their futures into their own hands, and so we can continue to have a strong middle class and good job growth in America. To do that properly, we first need the House Republican majority to realize what most Americans already know: A college education in America is a very valuable thing.

DeLauro is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.