WASHINGTON — It turns out there is a growing group on Capitol Hill joining the millions of Americans struggling to pay off their college loans: that’s right, congressmen have debt issues of their own.
With 46 lawmakers still carrying student debt, financial aid experts and students are optimistic the newly sworn-in lawmakers will approve legislation aiding students burdened by college loans. But as the March 1 sequestration deadline nears, financial aid programs — such as the popular Perkins Loan and the Federal Work Study Program — could be on the chopping block.
“The growth in college cost and the failure of grants to keep pace with college costs has grown to a point where even some of the wealthier members of our nation—members of Congress—are becoming familiar with the pain of paying back student loans,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid and Fastweb web sites.
The amount of student loan debtors in Congress has continuously increased since 2007, according to OpenSecrets.org. The total amount owed on those loans is between $1.8 million and $4.3 million.
Lawmakers still paying off debt from their college days include Democratic Reps. Louis B. Gohmert Jr. ofTexas, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Grace Meng of New York, Delegate Pedro Pierluisi, D-Puerto Rico, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., who holds a masters’ degree from Harvard, is listed as having the most debt, estimated at between $115,001 and $300,000.
Capitol Hill is a small puddle in the debt pool. In April 2012, the total amount of student loans owed surpassed credit card loans – in excess of one trillion dollars, including 11 percent that is delinquent, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report last November. This reflects an average debt load of $24,301 for each student borrower in the United States, according to the report.
Financial aid experts and students say the most feasible way to ease the crush of debt is for government, universities and students to collaborate in efforts to increase financial literacy among students.
Last year, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee’s subpanel on higher education and workforce training, caused a stir when she said she had “very little tolerance” for students who graduated with student loan debts, because “there’s no reason for that.”
“We live in an opportunity society and people are forgetting that,” Foxx said. “I remind folks all the time that the Declaration of Independence says ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ You don’t sit on your butt and have it dumped in your lap.”
While Foxx never borrowed money, four members of her subcommittee are included among the 46 lawmakers who currently have student loan debt: Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev, Rep. Luke Messer R-Ind., Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., and Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa.
A Four-Pronged Issue
According to financial aid and student loan experts, there are four main culprits contributing to the $1 trillion of outstanding student-loan debt nationwide: the questionable financial literacy of some students, colleges that charge too much in tuition and fees, insufficient federal government aid, and declining state aid to higher education.
“The federal and state government have been cutting their investment in post-secondary education,” said Mark Kantrowitz. “The primary driver of tuition inflation in public colleges is cuts in state appropriations.”
The cost of education is going up for three main reasons: college costs tend to grow exponentially, colleges are seeking to offer more financial aid, and grants have failed to keep pace with increases in college cost.
If the sequestration takes effect, the Office of Federal Student Aid, which funds the Perkins Loan and the Federal Work Study, would lose $140 million over the next seven months.
Pell Grants were among a few other initiatives shielded from sequestration, because the Budget Control Act of 2011 locked in funding levels for the program this year and next.
Not Just a Lower and Middle Class Issue
Kantrowitz said lawmakers, generally considered part of the wealthier class, are becoming familiar with the stress of paying back student loans and more sympathetic to the needs of the students.
Rory O’Sullivan, policy and research director of the youth advocacy group Young Invincibles, said the fact that a significant number of lawmakers face similar debt challenges makes him optimistic that relief may be on the way.
Although Foxx worked during her college years to pay off her schooling at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she concedes that paying for college is hard work.
“It’s getting harder as tuition and fees increase, and the vast majority of American households are feeling that pressure – including many members of Congress,” Foxx said.
Foxx said the need for solutions to help ease the challenge of college affordability is especially acute in today’s economy.
As of the end of last year, 53 percent of college graduates under 25 struggle with joblessness or-underemployment, according a study by the Associated Press.
In order to attack the problem, Foxx said students should have the information they need to make an informed decision about the financial obligations they voluntarily assume.
Kantrowitz said colleges might not be able to afford loan counseling for every student but should at least offer a mini-course during freshman orientation.
“Financial literacy training and learning how to manage money is not only going to make you more capable at making smarter decisions, but it’s going to help you become more successful throughout your life,” Kantrowitz said.
Rory O’Sullivan said schools need to do a better job at making sure students understand loan information. Currently, the standard for loan counseling only requires college financial aid administrators to send students a written explanation of loans with general information. Counselors are only required to reach out to students when they apply for loans in their first year and before they start repaying loans as graduation day approaches.
“We think there is more opportunity to provide more information to students about their loans — throughout the time they’re in school and not just when they’re entering and leaving,” O’Sullivan said.
Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said members of his group have no authority to require additional counseling. While some schools have tried to require additional counseling to students before borrowing, the Department of Education has rebuffed those attempts, said Draeger.
“Institutions really can’t do more,” Draeger said. His association “has recently proposed that aid administrators be given the authority to limit loan amounts in certain scenarios, perhaps based on institutional factors, credential, or program level.”
Congress creating financial literacy solutions
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama highlighted college affordability and the need for federal backing of research funding. His administration has created a College Scorecard, which works to heighten financial literacy among college students and their families.
Members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education — Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota — reintroduced two pieces of legislation this year for the 113th Congress.
One bill, called the Know Before You Owe Private Student Loan Act, addresses the financial aid administrators’ inability to provide more counseling. It requires full certification by schools of private education loans, and requires lenders to obtain the student’s enrollment status and cost of attendance from the university directly.
A second measure, the Fairness for Struggling Students Act, aims to make sure privately issued student debts not repaid will once again be forgiven in bankruptcy, like nearly all other forms of private debt.
“Students need to know how to avoid the higher interest rates and less favorable terms of private loans, so they can be on more stable financial footing when they graduate,” Harkin said in the press release.
Power of students to move legislation forward
Kantrowitz said more politically active students are emerging as an important swing vote.
“Students are also starting to matter in the congressional races, and members of Congress are starting to wise up to this and they realize that if they don’t start catering to the needs of students, they might not get elected or reelected,” Kantrowitz said.
Exit polls show young adults represented 19 percent of the 2012 electorate, indicative of the rising power of the youth vote.
“Political leaders are going to have to pay attention and take seriously the concerns our generation, whether on student debt or rising youth unemployment,” O’Sullivan said.