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Lily Eskelsen's picture

I was lucky that I went to college in 1976. I was working as a secretary but I wanted so much to be a teacher. My husband and I were living paycheck to paycheck and could meet our bills just fine, but we had no extra money to send me to college. My parents were doing just fine, but they were still raising my little brothers and sisters, and they had no extra money to send me to college.

I am a teacher today because the government of the United States of America invested in me. My country gave me money to go to college.

In 1976, I applied for a National Direct Student Loan to pay for my expenses at the University of Utah. There was no expensive middle-man bank. I owed the government the loan. I owed 3% interest. I had ten years to pay it back. And I did.

I graduated and became a teacher. I paid higher taxes than I did when I was a secretary. I did work that was important to my community. My husband and I were able to save a little money for our children’s college. We bought a little house. We saved something each month in a retirement account.

My country understood that with an investment in my adult education, I would be better prepared to take care of myself, my family and participate as an engaged member of society and not be a burden to the economy. President Obama gets that.

He sees higher education as a national investment. As a national imperative. And I’m sure he’s a nice man. But he doesn’t see affordable college as a nice thing to do. Affordable college is not a charitable contribution. It’s an investment and brings in a return on that investment that benefits the country for generations.

Some folks don’t get that.

There have been recent political debates on whether or not the purpose of a student loan program is to enrich a middle-man bank. Thank goodness the President put an end to that. He convinced Congress to refocus on the true purpose of the federal student loan program: To help college students pay for their education without incurring crippling debt.

It never was to help a bank make a big profit by increasing the costs of college to individual students and their families.

There have been debates on whether or not student loan interest should double. Or there should be fewer Pell Grants for low-income students. Or that states should continue to starve basic funding to state universities and community colleges, which simply shifts costs to students in ever-higher tuition and fees with the assumption that families can make up the difference.

When they can’t, they are forced to either abandon their dreams or take on crushing, sometimes bankrupting debt.

My government invested in me. It gave me seed money, and I bloomed. And I paid my country back with interest.

Today, it’s even more important to our students than it was in 1976. Today, families are struggling to stay in the middle-class. Today, our children will have to have some level of higher education, (trade schools, community colleges, universities) to live a middle-class life that their parents might have achieved with a high school education. Affordable college is not a luxury. It’s the foundation of a thriving middle-class.

Parents will do their part. Students want to do their part. But today, college is not affordable for too many middle-class families. Higher education is becoming a possibility for the lucky few.

Luck, however, is a lousy business plan when our economy depends on a healthy middle-class, and a healthy middle-class depends on the level of education a middle-class or poor person can access.

Today, this is even more important to our students than it was in 1976. Every country understands how important this is to their future.

EVERYWHERE families are struggling to stay in the middle-class.

Who doesn’t get that?

(Watch this video from Chile where students and teachers are organizing to ensure an affordable, quality and public education for all)

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