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Undoing the Influence of Rising College Costs | Commentary

The rising cost of college is unduly influencing our nation’s future.

A new survey from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute indicated that the percentage of college freshmen attending their first-choice school has reached its lowest level in almost 40 years, primarily due to rising costs and limited availability of financial aid. The cost of a college degree has increased more than 1,120 percent in the past 30 years — far outpacing the price inflation of consumer goods, medical expenses and food.

Gone are the days when a part-time job could sufficiently financially supplement a university degree: It now takes years of financial planning. Regrettably, in many cases it also means several thousand dollars in student loan debt that can take decades, and in some cases a lifetime, to repay. These financial barriers are often just too overwhelming for many families to overcome, and a college education remains just a dream instead of a reality.

During his State of the Union speech earlier this year, President Barack Obama vowed to work with Congress to help Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt. Now, more than ever, we need that to happen.

We know that incentives, tax breaks, matching dollars and guarantees help more people save larger sums of money. The tax incentives for 529 plans have long helped families plan for and cope with college’s ever-growing sticker price. According to new data from the College Savings Plans Network, in 2013, American families invested a record $227 billion in 529 plans.

It’s our job to stay creative and find additional ways to help families build a nest egg for their children’s education, because two things are certain: Tuition will continue to rise and the demand for a well-educated workforce is going to explode over the next 10 years. As I meet with my colleagues this week at the National Association of State Treasurers’ Legislative Conference to discuss these ideas, I urge our nation’s leaders to have the same discussion. We need to figure out a way to make college financially accessible for everyone.

Financial fences to education should not continue to outweigh the educational aspirations of our children — the future of this country. Congress needs to work on solutions to this problem now to ensure no child is left out of higher education and reaching his or her full potential.

Please support any legislation including HR 529, which would provide enhancements to 529 plans and afford so many more the opportunity to access education.

Betty Lochner is chairwoman of the College Savings Plans Network, an affiliate of the National Association of State Treasurers, and director of Washington’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program, a division of the Washington Student Achievement Council.

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