By Senator John Kerry
Some bedrock values have always defined the American DNA. One of them is pretty fundamental: we believe in opportunity.
We believe that everyone who wants to work hard and play by the rules should have a shot to succeed. We reject the downsizing of the American Dream.
And the place where the rubber hits the road in making good on the promise of those bedrock beliefs all boils down to a simple question parents everywhere struggle to answer: can we afford college?
This has always been something worth fighting for. It was at the center of my Senate race against Governor Weld in 1996 -- a big difference I had with President Bush in 2004 -- and here again in 2012 it will be a core principle at stake as President Obama runs for reelection.
That's why President Obama's new plan to make college more affordable is so important.
Over the past three decades, the cost of college has nearly tripled. The average in-state sticker price at a public university now exceeds $22,000 a year. Consequently, student loan debt has topped $1 trillion, surpassing credit card debt for the first time ever. This year's graduates will leave college owing an average of more than $24,000 -- not a great way to start out in the workforce.
We are stronger today because we have a President and Vice President in the White House today who get it -- on a personal level. When President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were married, they had about $120,000 combined in student debt. "We combined and got poorer together," he quipped. Vice President Biden still talks about "the longest walk up a short flight of stairs" -- when a parent has to come tell their son or daughter that they just don't have the money to send them back to college.
Those personal experiences -- seared into our leaders in the White House -- have motivated them every step of the way. Their first steps were to increase spending on Pell Grants, lower interest rates on student loans, restructure repayment plans for student loans to make them more affordable and, perhaps most dramatically, eliminated private banks as "middlemen" in student loans. That alone will save the federal government about $68 billion over 11 years.
They did all that without the support of Congressional Republicans -- they did it by working with Senate and House Democrats. Believe it or not, Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Budget Committee Chairman in the House, was outraged. He accused the President of having "confiscated the private student loan industry." And he complained that the Pell Grant program is "unsustainable" -- the same complaint Republicans too often make when they want to get rid of an investment that's working for people who need it.
This 2012 election will be defined in large measure by the debate over the President's new plan to do more to make college affordable. He wants to double the number of work-study jobs to 1.4 million. He wants community colleges and businesses to form new partnerships to train workers for local jobs. He wants to keep loan interests rates at a low 3.4 percent (they're scheduled to double in July) and prevent expanded education tax credits from expiring at the end of 2012. And most importantly, he wants to use financial incentives to encourage colleges and university officials to think creatively -- and with urgency -- about how to hold down the cost of a college education.
What's the other side fighting for? Well, it's almost a coin toss to decide whether it's better if they speak their mind, or say nothing at all. The likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, argues that "for-profit" colleges run by businesses, are the solution. (Clearly something has changed when the Party of Lincoln forgets that Abraham Lincoln created the non-profit Land Grant Colleges that opened the doors of college wide open in the first place, not to make a buck but to make a difference.) But Romney after all has been in a footrace against even harder right aspirants for the Republican nomination: Ron Paul thinks federal student loan programs should be eliminated completely, and Newt Gingrich, a former college professor, calls student loan programs an "absurdity."
What's at stake is more than an election -- it's the kind of country we're going to be. Politicians all talk about opportunity -- and the connection between our competitiveness as a country and the skills and education of our workers. But only one Party is willing to fight to give every American the chance to reach for that brass ring -- and keep America the world's economic leader in the 21st century. An economically-competitive America is a well-educated America, and a well-educated America is one where college not only is accessible but affordable. And that is something we Democrats know is worth the fight in 2012 -- and beyond.