When U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney went to Congress in 2006 he never forgot who sent him there: University of Connecticut students.

He returned to campus Thursday to let them know he will continue to champion legislation to reduce student loans.

Student loan debt last year topped total credit card debt in America. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, students took out more than $100 billion in loans in 2010, and had $1 trillion in outstanding loans in 2011—twice the amount of five years ago.

It is, according to Courtney, one of the most intractable roots of America’s achievement gap.

“Back in the 1980s, the United States was No. 1 in graduation rates, now we’re No. 12,” he said. “They don’t have any medals in the Olympics for coming in 12th.”

Courtney praised President Barack Obama for including his plans for higher education reform in the State of The Union, notably his goal to return the country’s graduation rate to No. 1 by 2020.

“That is a very ambitious goal to be pursuing,” Courtney said.

In an effort to reach that goal Courtney is supporting a permanent reduction in interest rates for the Stafford Loan program. Legislation passed in 2007 reduced the interest rates from 6.8 to 3.4 percent, but that legislation expires on July 1.

According to Courtney, the interest rate reduction could save individual students between $5,000 and $15,000, depending on how quickly the loans are paid off. A similar bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate by Jack Reed, the senior senator from Rhode Island.

During a question and answer session with students, Jasseigh Ingraham, a ConnPIRG member, asked Courtney if he thought rising student loan debt could have contributed to the recent downturn in the U.S. economy.

Courtney said that graduates need time to “experiment” with their careers, and that many graduates who otherwise would have started a small business may have been constrained by their debt.

“If you’re walking out the door with your degree and you’re getting hit with loan payments of $1,000 plus, that’s really going to put a damper on our economy,” Courtney said.

Courtney said state governments need to hold up their end of the bargain and continue funding higher education at a reasonable level.

“I don’ think it’s appropriate for state policy makers to relax their commitment to higher education,” Courtney said. “The Higher Education account should not be a way for the federal government to fill gaps in the state budget.”

“The federal government has $190 billion worth of skin in the game,” Courtney added.