Congress should act to allow refinancing of college student loans.

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GROWING up, my family struggled financially, but I was able to get a great college education with the help of student loans and financial aid.

Together we must ensure today’s students have the same opportunity. Making higher education more affordable isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also crucial to maintaining America’s role as a global leader in the 21st-century economy.

We can already see the rising cost of college is posing serious challenges to millions of middle-class students and their families. Each year, our nation’s students are being forced to take out higher loan amounts to pay for tuition, fees, textbooks and housing.

Last year, I heard firsthand from a low-income, first-generation student at Western Washington University who borrowed nearly $25,000 in student loans during her first three years alone. She was also working two jobs to keep up with the cost of college and save enough money for her senior year.

Unfortunately, her story isn’t unique. In Washington state, 56 percent of graduates from four-year universities leave school with student debt and, on average, they owe more than $23,000 upon graduation.

We are starting to see some progress in both the private and public spheres. Many employers are expanding efforts to reimburse employees for student loans and tuition. Starbucks, for example, is offering to cover the cost of tuition for its workers to obtain four-year degrees through an innovative partnership with Arizona State University.

Washington state is lowering the cost of tuition at public four-year universities and community colleges. This is a welcome change that will help make college more accessible. I hope other states follow Washington’s lead. But there is much more to do and the federal government must expand efforts to help students, graduates and their families cope with the cost of higher education.

If we are serious about job growth and strengthening the middle class, college access must be a national imperative.”

First, we should provide every student borrower the opportunity to refinance their loans. It’s unacceptable that Americans are currently able to refinance their car loans, mortgages and business loans, but cannot take advantage of lower interest rates on student loans.

As the new school year gets under way, U.S. House and Senate leaders should allow a vote on the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act. This legislation would put money back into the pockets of former college students across the country, including more than 450,000 Washingtonians.

The high cost of textbooks is another serious barrier for many. Students annually spend upward of $1,000 on college textbooks and supplies, which continue to become more expensive every year.

It’s time for us to take action on textbook prices by increasing access to electronic works, which are as much as 50 percent cheaper than new print textbooks. Congress should take up my bill, the E-BOOK Act, to meaningfully bring down costs for students.

Leaders from both parties also need to stand up for programs with a long history of success, like the Federal Perkins Loan Program. For more than 50 years, Perkins loans have enabled low-income students to attend college, but the program will expire at the end of September unless Congress acts. We must not let that happen.

As a nation, it is our responsibility to ensure students’ access to a world-class education isn’t dependent on their parents’ incomes or where they grew up. Clearly, there is a lot of work left to do.

If we are serious about job growth and strengthening the middle class, college access must be a national imperative. By working together — across party lines and with the private sector — we can ensure higher education is never out of reach.