Access to higher education is the great societal equalizer and what ultimately makes the American Dream possible. It’s what gives every parent hope. And for kids who grew up poor like me, it’s what allows us to achieve success.
My grandmother always told me to get an education because it would set me free.
She was right, even if I didn’t immediately follow her advice. Like my friends and siblings, I dropped out of high school and ran the streets before joining the U.S. Army.
I served in Vietnam, and returned home a combat-decorated veteran. Despite earning my GED in the Army in order to qualify for Special Forces, when I returned home I still couldn’t get into college.
It was an open enrollment program for veterans at Bronx Community College that opened the door for me. It was an opportunity that changed my life. In one generation, I went from being a homeless kid on the streets to becoming the 17th Surgeon General of the United States.
While our fate is ultimately determined by our own work ethic and desire to succeed, my story is proof that our uniquely American institutions play a critical role in creating opportunity for young people.
And yet, the Senate couldn’t get its act together last week to keep some student loan rates from doubling from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. They spun their wheels and played partisan games, and at the end of the whole thing our students ended up paying the price.
Without some responsible action from Congress, they could end up burdening over 520,000 Arizonans with an additional $770 per year in loans — making it that much tougher for students to get out of school and create a business, buy a home or start a family.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that college graduates who are 25 and older have an unemployment rate of just 4.1 percent. That same group, possessing just a high school diploma, faces an 8.7 percent unemployment rate.
There are two problems here that need to be solved. First, more of our kids need the opportunity to succeed in order to fulfill their potential. Second, in order to fuel the kind of sustained economic growth we want in Arizona through science, technology, alternative energy and other sectors we need an educated workforce that companies are eager to hire.
Doubling interest rates on student loans gets us farther away from solving those problems. And yet, career politicians in Washington don’t see the issue as clearly.
Congressman Jeff Flake recently voted against keeping the interest rates on student loans from doubling. And he recently blamed the rising cost of college tuition on Pell Grants, which AZ Fact Check definitively showed are not linked.
Flake’s opposition to these programs stems from a rigid political ideology that insists that public programs are detrimental to our economy, no matter the evidence to the contrary. Yet he continues to neglect the fact that we need to create opportunity in order to build a more educated workforce that contributes to the global economy.
We’ve seen enough from politicians who make decisions based on ideology, theology or whatever is best for their political party to remain in power. We deserve leaders who base decisions on sound facts and the best science.
Making it more difficult to get a college degree doesn’t accomplish any clear policy objective nor does it make any sense.
• Dr. Richard Carmona is the 17th Surgeon General of the United States and a candidate for the U.S. Senate.