Every summer, college graduates around the country don their caps and gowns in celebration of a job well done, with the hopes of using their degrees to propel them into a successful career.
But for many young Americans entering the workplace, that first job will also bring with it the first payment on tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt — debt that can take them decades to pay off.
While college is certainly not the only path to a good job, the fact is more than half of all jobs paying over $35,000 require a bachelor’s degree or higher — and that number is only expected to grow.
Americans are following the money. Today more than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, which has become one of the biggest consumer debt categories. All told, student debt in the U.S. now totals more than $1.5 trillion.
For South Dakotans, more than 109,000 borrowers hold $3.3 billion in total outstanding federal student loan debt, according to recent data from the Department of Education. That averages out to more than $30,000 per borrower. In Virginia, more than 1 million borrowers hold $38 billion in total outstanding debt. Across America, it’s estimated that the average borrower has more than $37,000 in debt, while more than 2 million student loan borrowers owe $100,000 or more — and these figures continue to rise.
As a result of this growing student debt crisis, many borrowers struggle to pay for day-to-day necessities like rent, groceries or car payments. For others, their student debt stands in the way of buying a home, starting a business or pursuing a new career opportunity.
While the federal government already provides some assistance to those who are eligible, much more can be done to help graduates responsibly pay down their student debt and help employers recruit and retain qualified candidates for good-paying jobs.
That is why we introduced the bipartisan Employer Participation in Repayment Act. Employers can already contribute up to $5,250 each year tax free to help cover the education expenses of students who are working while taking classes. Our legislation would expand this benefit to allow employers to provide the same tax-free contributions to their employees who are no longer in school and help them pay down their student loan debt.
Right now, borrowers pay taxes on any contributions their employer makes toward their student loans. Our bill would help employees pay down their student debt more quickly and put more of their hard-earned money toward buying a home, starting a business, or saving for the future.
This is an obvious benefit for graduates, but it would also give employers a new tool and benefit option that would help them attract and retain top-level talent. This is a win-win scenario for graduates, for businesses, and for the American economy.
We know this bipartisan legislation isn’t a silver bullet. More must be done to bring down the cost of higher education and expand opportunities for those Americans who choose not to go to college. But for the millions of Americans currently saddled with student debt, our bill would begin to ease that burden almost immediately.
Our bill can pass Congress and get the president’s signature this year. With more than one-third of both the House and the Senate signed on as cosponsors and a wide variety of endorsing stakeholder groups, our bill has earned the type of consensus support that’s not easily found in Washington these days. Several major companies have already committed to introducing student loan repayment benefits if Congress steps up and makes this fix. Let’s give employees the chance to take them up on the offer.
By working together in support of this bill, Democrats and Republicans can help give student borrowers some relief and put them on the pathway to success.
A version of this op-ed first appeared on TIME.com.