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Addressing the Rising Costs of Higher Education

March 4, 2016
Column

Whether I am talking with high school seniors, parents of college students, or recent graduates starting to repay their student loans, many Nebraskans express concerns to me about the rising costs of higher education.
 
During this presidential campaign cycle, candidates have made promises such as free community college or even to waive tuition at all public colleges and universities. However, Americans should be deeply skeptical of these giveaway claims. Federal money is never free, and our nation is already more than $19 trillion in debt.  

At the same time, there is no doubt the cost of college is impacting families across the country. Eric Bledsoe, program officer for curricular reform at The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, stated in a December column for the Daily Signal, “the cost of public higher education rose an astounding 538 percent between 1985 and 2013.” Inflation across the U.S. economy over the same time period was 116 percent.
 
The House Ways and Means Committee, on which I serve, has jurisdiction over tax policy. Last month, the chairmen of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee sent a letter to 56 private colleges with endowments larger than $1 billion to learn more about how these tax-exempt funds are utilized. We need to gather as much information as possible about the financial landscape of higher education to make improvements, but we also must avoid federal intrusion into the university system.
 
As we look more closely into the best ways to address higher education costs, I realize many students are facing decisions about their education now. When meeting with student groups, I emphasize the importance of making informed financial choices.  
 
Borrowers are often given the option to take out more in loans than they actually need. In discussions with students about the costs of higher education, I mention how taking out loans only in the necessary amounts can decrease the amount of interest they pay over the life of the loan and make it easier to repay their loans at a faster rate. Increasing financial literacy among students and helping them make wise decisions with their money is a crucial part of student loan reform.
 
Students should also be aware of other opportunities to pursue in-demand careers. Last week, I congratulated the South Central Nebraska Unified School District on the kickoff of their Career Pathways Program, which allows high school students to gain hands-on career experience in many diverse fields from agriculture to engineering to nursing. Additionally, Central Community College has partnered with the program so students can earn free college credits. These innovative approaches, which are numerous across our state, allow students to gain the skills they need with far less debt.
 
The rising cost of higher education is a hot topic on the campaign trail, but students and taxpayers need lasting solutions rather than empty promises. I hope families and educators will continue to share their thoughts with me on this important issue so together we can help prepare Nebraska students for successful careers and strong financial futures.