The cost of higher education was a key topic at a forum today sponsored by Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who is pushing a proposal to extend a cap on interest rates for some student loans.

Braley is holding two education events today in eastern Iowa. This morning, he led a panel discussion at St. Ambrose University, where students and faculty at Quad-City institutions talked about the challenges of rising costs and regulations, as well as the promise and limitations of innovation.

Mark Waitkus, president of the student council at St. Ambrose, said rising tuition costs and a high debt load are leading people to question the value of their education as they leave school for a still-recovering economy.

Just this week, St. Ambrose said its 2012-13 tuition would go up 4.25 percent.

Waitkus called the increase modest, but the pressure of rising costs and, at times, limited economic opportunities after graduation is difficult, speakers said.

“A lot of people are wondering can I actually do this,” added Christa Scheffler, a Palmer College of Chiropractic student. Participants in the forum represented not only St. Ambrose and Palmer, but also Eastern Iowa Community Colleges.

Braley said the purpose of the forum was to listen to student and faculty concerns, as well as share ideas. He also gave a presentation beforehand that summarized actions Congress has taken, particularly when Democrats held the majority, to boost Pell grant awards and reduce interest rates on federally subsidized student loans from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent.

That cap is slated to expire in July, and President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address called for an extension. On Wednesday, Braley introduced a bill to keep the rate at 3.4 percent indefinitely.

Braley said the cost to students going back to a 6.8 percent interest rate would be $5,000 over 10 years and $11,000 over 20 years. Iowa students, he said, carry one of the highest debt loads in the country.

Given the country’s budget deficit, it’s not clear what the prospects are for the extension.

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In addition to pushing for an extension of the lower interest rates for subsidized student loans, the president also directed a warning to colleges in the speech Tuesday. He said if universities don’t keep tuition costs in check, federal funding could be in jeopardy. He didn’t elaborate, however.

Student tuition and debt load weren’t the only topics at issue at the forum. One administrator at St. Ambrose held up a large binder that he said contained guidance for federal regulations pertaining to education.

Paul Koch, vice president for academic and student affairs at St. Ambrose, said questions about federal regulations often are met with conflicting answers, if any at all. “We need clarity. We need some simplification,” he said.

Participants also talked about the potential for innovations, not only to extend learning opportunities but to save money. However, there are limitations. One speaker talked about a presentation he’d seen on robotic teachers overseas, something he frowned upon.

In addition to the forum at St. Ambrose, Braley planned to sponsor another event in Cedar Rapids. He’ll hold similar forums Friday in other parts of the state.