IN ADDITION to the education crisis that many students and parents are facing throughout Philadelphia, our nation faces a rising problem that will have a drastic impact upon our entire economy. In the past few months I have had the opportunity to meet with people across southeastern Pennsylvania and hear their concerns. Among them is the ticking time bomb of student-loan debt.

Whether the person I was speaking to was a parent, a current student, a recent graduate or someone who graduated decades ago, their fears are all the same - fear that they may not be able to cope with the cost of achievement and advancement through the pursuit of a college education.

Throughout the past 25 years, the cost of higher learning has increased by 440 percent. Currently, 60 percent of undergraduates across the United States hold an average student debt of $27,253.

Nationally, this means a combined debt totaling over $1 trillion, compared to the national debt of $16.7 trillion, and since 2005 the average student-loan balance has increased by 49 percent.

To make matters worse, the gridlock in Washington has made it even harder to spur economic growth.

I'm among those who still hold student debt, but many are not as lucky as I am. Today the under-30 age group faces the challenges of unemployment or underemployment. Last year, 8.8 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed and 18.3 percent were working in jobs that did not require a college degree. This further hinders their ability to pay back the cost of their education.

It used to be that the American dream was achievable through hard work and sound investment. These ideals have not disappeared, but, through no fault of their own, graduates face obstacles that make it hard for them to succeed.

We must provide them with the ability to make a living, and the opportunity to responsibly pay back the debts they've accumulated.

If we do not invest and address the lack of employment, we will perpetuate an environment in which graduates are unable to purchase homes and automobiles, and boost our economy. This debt crisis and graduates' inability to participate as consumers could bring back the crippling pains we experienced five years ago with the collapse of the banking industry.

In Harrisburg, I have often stood for responsible investment in our future, and now I call upon our leaders in Washington to do the same. I acknowledge the need for financial vigilance, but we can no longer pursue austerity and put future economic growth at risk.

In order to ensure the strength of the economy and the success of our graduates we must ease their burden. There are those who would suggest that the United States cannot afford to reduce the interest on student loans; however, the federal government offers low-interest rates for banks at a rate of lower than 1 percent. If our leaders in Washington do not act soon, graduates will be paying nine times what banks pay in interest on their loans.

To be clear: I do not cite any statistics to vilify banks - far from it. However, just as we must have healthy banks we must have a healthy community of graduates.

It is unfortunate that Republicans in Washington prey upon our students and are attempting to profit off their debt. Their plan would increase rates on students to as high as 8.5 percent and would provide a fluctuating payment plan that is tied to the market. Therefore, the burden on Americans would rise and fall, leading to confusion and financial uncertainty.

The proponents of such a plan are also those who stand in opposition to affording college graduates the same interest rates that we provide to banks.

They suggest that such an investment in our students is too risky; that there is no way to guarantee that graduates will not default and that if they do default they will not have assets to seize. They have lost faith and confidence in the American college graduate, and they forget that these people are in themselves assets.

We must provide them with a solid foundation in order for them to prosper and contribute to our strengths and eliminate where we fall short.

By creating a low-interest rate on need-based Stafford loans, and a fixed rate for unsubsidized and plus loans, we are providing certainty and opportunity for those who reach for something more.

I call upon our leaders in Washington to avoid a needless increase in student interest rates. We can and must find commonsense solutions.