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Work hard. Stay in school. Go to college. Earn your degree.

Those are the steps we laid out for young people, regardless of where they started out, to climb the economic ladder and achieve the American Dream.

That’s what we tell our kids, but have we been making false promises? Is their investment in higher education a down payment on a better life, or are they buying into a 21st-century Ponzi scheme?

A looming student loan crisis is derailing the dreams of Virginians.

Nationally, student loan debt now tops $1.3 trillion. That’s a big number, larger than credit card and auto loan debt. Virginia’s share is substantial. And that number is climbing.

The average Virginia college graduate leaves school more than $29,000 in debt. These eager young graduates should be entering the workforce brimming with energy and enthusiasm. Instead, they often feel two steps behind, burdened with significant debt and monthly payment obligations.

I spent a couple of days last month meeting with student borrowers around the state. Their stories were harrowing.

A student at George Mason University shared that her family is selling its home after taking out a home equity line of credit to finance her first year of school. She doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to afford to complete her education.

A woman who graduated 15 years ago still owes tens of thousands of dollars on her education and watched her balance grow during lean times when she’d been offered a “forbearance” — causing her original loan amount to double.

I also heard stories about the real costs of student debt for all of us: purchases and investments not made. One woman told us she and her husband would have had another child if they hadn’t been paying hundreds of dollars a month toward their student loan debt. Nearly half raised their hand when asked if they would buy a new or larger home if not for their student loan payments.

I am a real estate attorney. Many of these stories sounded eerily similar to the stories I heard from clients just before and during the real estate catastrophe of 2008 to 2010. Tales of loan products not properly explained, of negative amortization features not fully understood or appreciated and loans given out with little to no money due now and no plan for what to do when the real payment shock kicked in.

When the real estate bubble finally popped, it wasn’t just irresponsible borrowers and lenders who suffered. The economy is still emerging from what came to be known as the Great Recession.

Similarly, the economic impact of the looming student loan debt crisis isn’t limited to borrowers. The heavy debt burden is a drag on our communities. A study published last year estimated that every $250 per month in loan payments reduces a household’s home purchasing power by $44,000. Millennials with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt aren’t purchasing homes and cars; they’re struggling to make their monthly budgets.

Education shouldn’t be a risky investment, but it is for too many college graduates. On Capitol Hill, policymakers have proposed a number of potential solutions, but if we wait for Congress to act, we’ll grow old and gray before we see action.

Virginia can and should take steps to support borrowers struggling under heavy student loan debt loads and protect future borrowers. Virginia can begin by reestablishing the state Education Loan Authority and follow in the steps of Rhode Island and Connecticut by empowering the authority to refinance student loans. Virginia can also stand up for students and establish a student loan borrowers’ bill of rights to expand consumer protections and ensure borrowers have better access to information on lenders, servicers and repayment options.

If Virginia wants to maintain its status as a great place to do business and retain the best and brightest workforce, we have to ensure conversations about the rising cost of college include solutions. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to tackle the student loan debt crisis.

The writer, a Democrat, represents the 53rd District in Virginia’s House of Delegates.