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Our colleges and universities are incredible national resources, but state budget cuts have caused tuition to more than triple over the last 20 years and student loan debt has soared as a result.

The UAW represents more postdoctoral researchers, graduate student employees and teaching assistants than any other union in the country. We have seen how these budget cuts have affected academic workers as school administrations put the squeeze on them. Through collective bargaining, these student workers have been able to negotiate for better pay, benefits, and workplace conditions including protections against discrimination and sexual assault. This not only improves their lives but improves the quality of education in the institutions where they work.

As more studies show that tuition has risen across the board in all institutions, it’s not just academic workers who have a stake in our higher education system. We all do.

A well-educated and skilled workforce is the key to economic prosperity. Studies show that by 2020, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require at least some form of higher education, up from 59 percent in 2007. With state funding cuts driving up tuition for students, workers of the future have to take out tens of thousands of dollars in school loans. This explosion in student loan debt is weighing down an entire generation. In 2014, the average student debt was close to $30,000.

Education should be one of the highest priorities in the next administration; while we address college debt we should also address the need for a skilled work force through vocational, technical and apprentice programs. While many governors and candidates for public office brag about cutting taxes, they fail to talk about how our children and grandchildren are being left behind without the opportunity to meet the needs of the next generation’s workforce.

That’s why new programs and current programs like the GI bill are so important to the future of our country.

President Obama has worked to address this problem by raising the Pell Grant maximum which has expanded by 50 percent. But there’s more work to be done to help young people and working families. If elected, Hillary Clinton has a plan to address the college affordability crisis. Her first proposal, one that was championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, is that all public colleges and universities will be tuition-free for students from families with incomes of up to $85,000. By 2021, this will apply to those who make $125,000 a year or less.

For those already trying to pay off student debt, Clinton’s plan will give all federal student loan borrowers a three-month break from making student loan payments. During that time, they will get help with refinancing their loans or they can move into a payment plan based on their incomes. Clinton’s plan also calls for improved access to child care on campuses and scholarships to meet the needs of student parents which will make it easier for them to build a better future for themselves and their families.

Higher education must be accessible to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds and our country needs our elected leaders to tackle these challenges head on. As the global economy becomes more competitive, the strength of our nation and economy depends not only on fair trade deals, but on the education and skills of our workforce.

We must elect candidates who will give young people and working families the support they need to compete without loading them down with debt that will take decades to pay off.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.

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