Op-Ed: Laboring for your future

Sept. 3, 2012, 11:04 a.m.

Op-Ed: Laboring for your futureMy father was a laborer. He worked in the fields, on the railroads and in the factories doing grueling and dangerous manual labor so that I could be the first member of my family to go to college.

You’re reading this column in a college newspaper, so maybe you, too, owe your chance to get this education to someone in your family who sacrificed for you. Or perhaps you’re the one who’s making the sacrifice—working nights and weekends to put yourself through school, or taking out loans that could take decades to pay back.

As we celebrate Labor Day, I’ll be thinking about my father—and the sacrifices so many of our families make to help us realize our full potential. My Dad never dreamed he would raise a future U.S. Secretary of Labor. But since he did, I want to use this holiday to talk about the urgent need to invest in the next generation of American workers.

Higher education is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity.The unemployment rate for Americans with a college degree is half the national average. College has never been more important, and it has never been more expensive.

Tuition and fees at our colleges and universities have more than doubled over the last two decades. For the first time, Americans now owe more on their student loans than they do on their credit cards. The average college student who borrows today will graduate with $26,000 in school debt.

We all understand that this country is still fighting back from the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes. But President Obama rejects the argument that we can afford to cut higher education—and shortchange our future—due to a recession or red ink.

Think about all the discoveries, businesses and breakthroughs that never would’ve happened if we let an affordable college education become the victim of our economy’s swings. America has always made a commitment to put a good education within the reach of those willing to work for it.

Frankly, it’s baffling to me to see partisan calls for cuts in higher education. Some politicians are backing a plan to reduce investments by almost 20 percent. That would deny a college education to one million students across the country and slash financial aid for 10 million more. These cuts would not go to reducing our deficit; they would pay for a new $5 trillion tax cut weighted toward the wealthiest Americans.

Earlier this year, President Obama fought to make sure the interest rate on federal student loans didn’t go up; his opponents wanted to double them. We won that fight.

Earlier this year, we set up a new college tax credit to help more middle class families save up to $10,000 on their tuition over four years. We won that fight, too. The other party’s leaders want to repeal it.

The Obama administration has helped more than 3.6 million additional students obtain Pell grants and he’s fighting to double work study jobs. We know the return on this investment will be worth it…and then some.

This Labor Day, we should all join the debate on college affordability happening in Washington. No single issue has a more direct impact on the financial burden you’ll carry after graduation or the dynamism of the economy you will enter.

My father, and many of yours, worked hard to give us a chance to achieve whatever our talents would allow. Let’s pay it forward, so more members of our American family get their shot, too.

Hilda L. Solis is the U.S. Secretary of Labor.

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