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Education shouldn't bury students in loan debt

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About 1.6 million students will graduate from college this year, according to The National Center for Education Statistics. They will be searching for full-time work, but the odds are stacked against them. Although the job market is improving, competition is fierce and jobs are scarce and the U.S. Labor Department says unemployment among 2013 graduates is still high at 10.9 percent. In addition to those concerns, college graduates are saddled with student loan debt - it has passed the trillion-dollar mark - and often credit card debt.

Recognizing the confluence of punishing factors facing those grads, and the ones coming after them, there have been several attempts in recent days to alleviate some of the costs and the strains.

• Coffee giant Starbucks recently announced it will offer aid to both part-time and full-time employees in paying for school. The company's new initiative will pay for thousands of its employees to complete their bachelor's degrees online at Arizona State University. The Starbucks College Achievement Plan will allow workers who participate to pursue a program from the 40 undergraduate programs offered. Those who enter the program as college juniors or seniors will receive a full tuition reimbursement.

• Just last week, President Obama announced his plan for an expansion of the "Pay as You Earn" program that allows graduates to repay their student loans in accordance with their income levels.

The remodeled program, which the president extended by executive order, expands the criteria for a repayment program that caps monthly payments for some of the existing federal student loans at 10 percent of the borrower's income.

Under this policy, borrowers would make payments for 20 years, or until they have paid off the balance on their existing loan - whichever one comes first. Any loan balance would be forgiven after 20 years - or 10 years if the borrower decides to pursue work in public service, being the government agency or the nonprofit sector. The repayment plan does not cover loans taken out from private lenders.

• A student loan bill introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., did cover the refinancing of both federal and private student loans, but Senate Republicans blocked consideration for the bill in a 56-38 vote. The votes of Kentucky's GOP senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, helped to stall the measure, as did Indiana Republican Dan Coats. Democrat Joe Donnelly voted for it.

Sen. Warren's "Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act" would have provided relief for more than 25 million Americans, allowing the owners of covered student loans to refinance them at a rate of 3.86 percent. Setting minimum tax rates for millionaires would have paid for the bill.

Clearly something is amiss with the American dream of going to college and getting a good job if you have to pay for it for the rest of your life. The growing crisis for students - not only in paying for school, but in paying for it for decades after they graduate - demands more private and public measures to address the causes of growing costs in college education and shrinking job opportunities afterward. What affects these students today affects all of us, and our shrinking middle class, tomorrow.

• This editorial was originally published in The Courier-Journal.