Guest Opinion: Joni Ernst


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My parents didn’t go to college, but they lived a middle-class life in southwestern Iowa, where they raised my brother, sister, and me. But by the time I graduated high school, the middle-class was much harder to attain without some higher education. So I was the first in my family to graduate with a four-year degree, earning a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State in 1992. I’m thankful for all the doors that higher education opened in my life.

Now I’m the mom of a teenage daughter who will graduate from high school in a few short years. For her generation, some form of higher education isn’t just helpful for reaching the middle class, it’s virtually required.

We need reforms to ensure that the thousands of Iowans who attend four-year colleges (such as you) can graduate without unmanageable amounts of student debt. It starts with keeping a lid on tuition increases. For the last two years, Iowa residents did not see any increase in undergraduate tuition. We’ve also implemented policies that have helped create 150,000 new good-paying jobs. I’m proud that Forbes now ranks Iowa as the fifth-best state in the nation for recent graduates.

The federal government also has an important role to play in making college affordable. For decades, Congress has increased the amount of funding available for higher education only to see skyrocketing tuitions across the country, with little improvement in the quality or accessibility of higher education. 

I know how important Pell Grants and student loans are to thousands of Iowa students, and I will fight to protect them. This is personal for me because I had help for school from federal aid and scholarships. With higher education more important than ever, we cannot do anything that might make it harder to achieve.

But it’s not acceptable that many students will graduate from college with so many loans that it will take decades of hard work to become debt free. And, to make matters worse, many graduates can’t find jobs in the fields that they studied or that pay enough to meet all their costs.

If I’m elected to the U.S. Senate, I will fight to make higher education more affordable. For starters, we should give students better information about how much it will cost to pay off their student loans after they graduate and how much graduates typically earn, so young people can do a better cost/benefit analysis before taking out loans and enrolling in programs. 

We should also drive down the costs of higher education by increasing competition. Right now, federal student loans can only be used for select institutions, so we should explore ways to make more institutions and companies eligible. 

Finally we should transition more students to more innovative systems for repaying student loans. Under one system, graduates’ monthly loan payments are tied to their income. If your first job after graduation doesn’t pay much, that’s OK — your loan payments would be relatively small until your salary increases. These loan-payment systems already exist, and I give the Obama administration credit for expanding them, but they should be streamlined and less burdensome to utilize.

When I think about higher education, I think about my daughter, who is a sophomore in high school. Will higher education be more or less affordable in three years? Will there be enough good-paying jobs for new graduates when she finishes her studies? The choices we make in this election will help answer those questions.

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