By Dianne Feinstein
Originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News

As the college graduation season begins in earnest, students throughout Los Angeles are getting an earful of sage advice from commencement speakers.

The lessons are inspirational: Follow your dreams, reach for the stars. America is still the land of opportunity, and hard work is still a pathway to success.

Unfortunately, as mortar boards are tossed into the air in celebration and hope, they fall back to college graduates now saddled with often crippling student loan debt. For many, this burden will last for decades.

Student loan debt is certainly not a fitting topic for a commencement speech, but it’s an issue we must confront — not only for thousands of college graduates who deserve a fair shot, but also for our economy.

Student loan debt, coupled with the rising cost of higher education, demands immediate attention.

It is well known that the price tag for a college degree keeps climbing. Between 1985 and 2011, tuition and fees rose at four times the rate of inflation. Just over the past year, costs have risen about 3 percent for the average student attending a public college or university.

At UCLA, tuition for a California resident is $12,862. Non-residents pay a staggering $35,743.

When you include housing, food, books and other fees, it’s clear that higher education is becoming difficult for many Americans to afford.

In order to cover these costs, more and more students are forced to rely heavily on student loans.

For these students, the specter of debt after graduation looms especially large.

Today, around 38 million students owe more than $1.1 trillion in student loan debt. That’s nearly 30 percent greater than total credit card debt for the entire country.

The average student loan debt for UC graduates now stands at around $20,500. California’s high cost of living, combined with steep interest rates, compounds the problem.

And it’s not just a challenge for pocketbooks. High levels of student loan debt can have far-reaching effects on graduates for many years.

Debt can influence personal decisions such as career choice, when to start a family, whether to open a business and when to buy a home.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and colleagues are working on a bill that I think is a good first step. It would allow many individuals with existing student loan debt — often with interest rates between 8 and 9 percent, sometimes much higher — to refinance at much lower interest rates, often below 4 percent.

What this means is repayment costs would be cut by hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year. It’s just one way we can mitigate the high costs of repaying student loans.

I urge Congress to pass a bill that will allow students to refinance these loans to help manage their debt.

For our economy, it means more money that graduates can spend and greater economic stability from which to plan major life events.

In the spirit of commencement speeches, I would like to offer some advice to my fellow lawmakers in Washington.

College costs continue to rise and student loan debt threatens to price many Americans out of a college education and out of the middle class. To counter that, Congress must take quick action to offer a fair shot to all Americans and help young adults follow their dreams and achieve success.

And to all of this year’s graduates, a hearty congratulations!

Dianne Feinstein is a U.S. senator representing California.