The U.S. secretary of education held a roundtable Thursday with college students in a competitive swing district in the Hudson Valley as Democrats fight to win back control of the U.S. House of Representatives this November. 

Several state electeds joined U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in Kingston and Poughkeepsie to learn about career and technical education programs and affordability to boost workforce development.

"I'm dealing with students that are $200,000 in debt because they went to continue for school in a career that doesn't really pay well," Cardona told Spectrum News 1 on Thursday. "We have to be smarter."

Cardona highlighted investments in career technical education in the state's 18th Congressional District as U.S. Rep. Pat Ryan runs a tight election contest against former Republican lieutenant governor candidate Alison Esposito. The deep-purple district stretches from Orange to Dutchess counties.

Cardona and Ryan celebrated a groundbreaking Thursday of the construction of a new career and technical center at Kingston's iPark 87 — the former IBM manufacturing site. Later on, they held a roundtable with Dutchess Community College students and faculty about trade and technical careers. 

"We have a very rigid system — we've got to open it up," Ryan said. "We have to be creative, flexible, innovative."

The congressman said the goal is to expand affordable programs that connect students to the workforce.

The competitive district boasts an even divide of registered Democrat and Republicans, but Ryan is ahead in fundraising with over $4.7 million in his campaign warchest, outpacing Esposito at just over $851,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

President Joe Biden's plan to cancel student loans for nearly 4.6 million people is a central issue this election cycle. Republicans and former President Donald Trump have blasted the plan as a publicity stunt.

Cardona touted over $118 billion investments in New York to develop clean energy, infrastructure and manufacturing jobs under legislation passed during Biden's tenure. And he defended the president's loan forgiveness plan.

"We are committed to helping our students, helping our borrowers and making sure they get back on their feet so they can help their local economy," Cardona said. "And we're unapologetic about that and we're going to continue to do that."

Thursday's discussion was centered on lower education costs and debt for young people entering the workforce as affordability is a top concern with higher utility, food and housing costs. Republican and Democrat state lawmakers and county executives were in attendance.

U.S. Rep. Marc Molinaro, R-19, could not attend, but said in a statement emphasizing workforce development, vocational education and related partnerships is essential for students to succeed.

"As the Department of Education examines our local needs, I’d also encourage them to focus on growing pathways to employment for students with disabilities, so every student, of every ability, has the ability to succeed," Molinaro said. "Education and workforce development isn’t a Republican versus Democrat issue."

Ryan says expanding career and technical programs will give young New Yorkers high-paying jobs that allow them to stay in the state.

"Big corporations are making record-breaking profits in every sector while working people are struggling, and that's what we have to talk about," Ryan said. "The fact that under the former president, we gave the single biggest tax cuts to big corporations and billionaires in modern history and it's everyday Americans paying that price. So we need to level that playing field in that regard."

Cardona said Thursday he supports exploring additional pathways to assess students to receive a high school diploma. New York's Board of Regents released a plan earlier this month to phase out Regents exams for high schoolers.

"We need to make sure that we know what the students are doing have high standards, but we have to do it in creative ways where students are not just preparing for a test for months," the education secretary said. "We need to give them better hands-on experiences, experiential learning and performance tasks where we can measure their success."