Dream big, Class of 2014

The Class of 2014 will graduate from high school on the heels of welcome news that fewer of their peers are dropping out of school. Recently released data from the U.S. Department of Education show America hit its highest-ever high school graduation rate when the Class of 2012 topped 80 percent. Even more impressively, Iowa ranked highest in the nation with an 88 percent success rate at keeping kids in school through graduation.

This is good news. It shows a commitment by parents and educators to give the next generation a strong start to become productive contributors of society. America’s posterity will be shaped by the choices Millennials make to embrace and protect the blessings of economic freedom and individual liberty as they come of age in the 21st century.

Friends and family look forward to celebrating this milestone with the Class of 2014 in communities across Iowa. Parents have plenty to celebrate. Since 1960, the USDA has compiled data on what it costs to raise a child in the United States. Child-rearing costs have seen an average annual increase of 4.4 percent. The USDA’s most recent report projects parents would spend $241,080 to raise a child born in 2012 from birth to age 17.

If only sticker shock stopped on graduation day. Some students may already have a taste of debt with monthly car payments. Others may have hefty tuition bills on their horizon. A growing share of college-bound students takes out financial aid and graduates with an average $27,000 debt. Today the nation’s student loan portfolio is a whopping $1 trillion and many predict a likelihood of significant default, putting taxpayers on the hook yet again.

This spring I introduced bipartisan legislation to help families comparison shop for colleges. The bill would update and standardize requirements for colleges to make available a net price calculator, an online tool to make it easier for students to better estimate and compare what they would pay at schools they are interested in attending.

Even without student loans, the Class of 2014 enters the “real world” already saddled with debt, their portion of the federal debt. The $17.5 trillion federal IOU boils down to nearly $55,000 for every man, woman and child in America. Before landing their first job after high school, these graduates have inherited an expensive tab.

However, the debt burden is not the only reason this generation will struggle to get a foothold in the economy.

Economic growth hasn’t kept pace and the result is shrinking opportunities and dreams for would-be entrepreneurs, job creators and workers struggling to find full-time employment. The labor force participation rate is the worst in four decades and entry-level job applicants find themselves competing with over-qualified candidates for work.

Tax, spend and borrow policies in Washington are driving up debt instead of recharging what drives U.S. economic growth. Rather than giving the green light to job-creating policies, such as simplifying the tax code, making the corporate tax burden more competitive in the global economy, fighting for trade promotion authority, approving the Keystone XL pipeline and going after homegrown energy whole hog, allies of Big Government support forcing small businesses to give raises they can’t afford, controlling the delivery of health care in America and dictating regulatory burdens that make it harder for businesses to grow, hire, expand and invest.

Overpromising, overreaching and overspending occur at the expense of future generations. Policies that push wealth redistribution and unsustainable entitlements are unraveling the merits of America’s success story handed down for generations: that big dreams, hard work, sacrifice and ambition would be rewarded with unlimited opportunity. The heavy-handed levers of government-knows-best are uprooting America’s “sky’s the limit” mindset. Fostering a culture of dependence and entitlement instead of self-sufficiency and hard work goes against America’s grain.

So, I challenge the Class of 2014 to help put America back on track. Whether choosing to enter the workforce, obtain vocational training, pursue higher education, volunteer, or serve one’s country, it’s more important than ever for our youngest generations to dream big and understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

That’s why I make it a priority to foster robust representative government and strengthen civics education. That includes visiting regularly with students in their schools. I want to hear what’s on their minds and challenge them to get involved and tune in to current events. Recently I cosponsored a bipartisan resolution that affirms the importance of teaching civics education in our schools. It puts the U.S. Senate on record that we must reinforce the principles of self-government so future generations will understand how to hold government to account.

Research shows an erosion of basic knowledge about our constitutional government, such as the natural rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the functions of the three branches of government. And growing cynicism about the institutions of government and public service reflect a growing disconnect between “we the people” and the healthy functioning of self- governance. Apathy is damaging to the crop of new graduates who will sow the seeds of America’s prosperity for posterity.

Dream big, Class of 2014. As farmers working the fields this spring have known for generations, you will reap what you sow.