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U.S. Reps. Joe Courtney and John Larson called Monday for “bottom-up support” from University of Connecticut students during a forum on student loan debt and college affordability at the Storrs campus.

“Change doesn’t happen in Washington, D.C. Any great idea starts in places like Storrs, starts in places where it’s the people that are directly affected by an issue that come together and unite,” Larson told a group of UConn students.

The congressmen said employers increasingly are seeking workers with some level of college education.

“We’re looking at a workforce that is going to demand 70 percent of the population to have at least a two-year degree. We’re not there yet as a state, and that creates a gap between what the economy is going to need as a state and the issue of how to fill that gap,” Courtney said.

About 40 million individual borrowers in the United States now owe roughly $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. The average amount of student loan debt per graduate is nearly $30,000.

Students voiced concerns about what specific legislation Congress is introducing this year that will have a direct effect on the burden of paying off student loan debt. Student loans are the highest form of borrower’s debt, topping both automobile and credit card debt since 2009.

Courtney, a member of the Subcommittee for Higher Education and Workforce Training, spoke about a bill that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had introduced in the 113th Congress that would have allowed borrowers to refinance federal and private student loans at the lower rates now available to new borrowers — as low as 3.86 percent for undergraduates. 

Over 300,000 of the 500,000 Connecticut residents with federal student loan debt could be helped by this bill if it were enacted, according to Courtney.

Larson will soon introduce the Student Loan Debt Relief Act, which would empower the secretaries of the Treasury and Education departments to use funds to forge a refinancing program similar to Warren’s bill.

State Rep. Gregory Haddad, D-Mansfield, co-sponsored legislation in Hartford regarding the implementation of open source textbooks for all college students, which are free to use by students and faculty.

Both congressmen agreed they’re optimistic about the passing of legislation in the current Congress.

“There is a huge opportunity [for bipartisanship] but people have to care enough about it to push their elected officials. You move bills by getting the conversation started,” said Courtney.

Student loan interest rates and the cost of textbooks are “right in the heart” of a debate unfolding in the Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee on the overdue Higher Education Act, Courtney said.

“This meeting tonight is important,” Courtney said. “… We really hope that dialogue will continue.”