Spring is in the air, and it’s a beautiful time to be on campus. As you’re settling into your final quarter of the school year, many of you are applying for summer internships and finalizing your plans to study abroad, while others may be getting ready to graduate and start a career … and wondering how you’re going to pay off those student loans.

At a time when student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt in our country, I know this is a very real concern for soon-to-be graduates. The high cost of paying back your loans can be substantial — determining the type of career you pursue or even where you’ll live. As a former student at UCSB myself and the mother of college grads, I know how daunting a challenge it can be. That’s why in 2007 I worked hard to help pass into law the College Cost Reduction and Access Act. This bipartisan law cut the interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans in half, from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent, over a four-year period, easing the burden on thousands of students and their families.

While I had pushed for the interest-rate cut to be longer, Congress and then-President Bush compromised and set the lower rate for only a period of four years. That means these historically low rates will double — going back up to 6.8 percent on July 1 — if Congress does not act soon. This troubling increase would cost a student borrower thousands of dollars more in interest payments over the life of his or her loan.

Our country needs to be investing in higher education, not pulling back. And with tuition skyrocketing in California and in states across the country, it is more important than ever that the federal government take action to keep education affordable and within reach to all. That’s why I’m supporting legislation to keep student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent. So far, the majority party has refused to bring our bill up for a vote, but I keep pushing them. For example, last month I forced a House vote on legislation to at least allow the Department of Education to take any steps it could take to make college more affordable if Congress won’t act. Unfortunately, my legislation was defeated on a party-line vote.

Lower rates on student loans are important, but I know that Pell Grants are also critical to helping thousands of Gauchos afford the ever-increasing costs of tuition and textbooks. In fact, over 15,000 students in my congressional district alone benefit from this vital federal financial assistance, and it’s one reason why I’ve continued to push for increased funding for Pell Grants.

We passed legislation in 2009 to increase the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,550, and I’m urging the leadership in the House of Representatives to increase the award to $5,635. But despite the soaring costs of going to college, some actually want to cut back this vital assistance. In fact, the budget the House just passed would cut Pell Grants by more than $1,000, raising costs for the nearly 10 million students getting grants today. Needless to say, that budget did not get my vote.

I know these are tough times for college students. Tuition is going up and graduates are facing a very tough job market. But for those of you who have gone the extra mile to get into college and worked so hard to graduate, I’ll do everything I can to help support you. I believe we must make investments in higher education and give you — our nation’s future leaders and innovators — the tools to compete successfully in a global economy and make a difference in your community.

I look forward to seeing you on campus sometime soon. In the meantime, I hope you’ll also get in touch with me on Facebook and Twitter. My Twitter handle is @RepLoisCapps.

Good luck, and Go Gauchos!

Lois Capps is the representative for the 23rd District of Calif.