Issue: Student Debt


In exchange for his education, DJ Summers carries a $96,000 financial burden upon his shoulders.

“Every day, I wake up thinking about those loans,” said Summers, 26, a graduate student in journalism at Syracuse University. “And every night, I go to sleep thinking about them.”

Of that $96,000, Summers owes $60,000 in federal student loans and $30,000 in private bank loans. He borrowed the remaining $6,000 from his grandmother.

He’s among almost 39 million Americans who borrow money to finance their studies, according to December 2012 data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Consider these statistics:

  • As of December 2013, student debt nationwide is nearly $1.1 trillion, according to the New York federal reserve. It’s the second-largest form of consumer debt after mortgages.
  • In 2012, the average borrower owed close to $25,000, also according to the New York federal reserve. That’s a 70-percent increase since 2004.
  • In New York state, the average debt for college seniors graduating in 2012 was slightly more than $25,000, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, based out of Oakland, Calif., and Washington, D.C.
  • By far, the federal government is the biggest lender to students. For example, nationally, graduates in 2012 had only 20 percent of their debt from private lenders, according to the institute.
  • By the end of 2012, about 6.7 million borrowers across the country—17 percent—had fallen more than 90 days behind in their payments and were considered delinquent, according to the New York federal reserve.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 regulates federal student aid in the country. In its last update in 2013, the law changed the way interest rates are set for students. Now, interest rates fluctuate annually to reflect changes in the financial market, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a national organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., that lobbied for the measure.

“Prior to the passage of this law, we had a system where interest rates were set in law,” said Megan McClean, a spokesperson for the association. “Now we’ve moved to a system where student loan rates will be more in line with what’s happening in the current market.”

That means that student borrowers of direct federal loans—the largest government loan program—will be hit by higher interest rates this summer, according to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Now, for example, the interest rates are 3.86 percent for undergraduate students and 5.41 percent for graduate or professional students for unsubsidized loans. The rates are expected to increase in July by 1.23 percent, the bureau predicts.

To help those struggling with loans, lawmakers in Congress are considering new measures aimed at easing student debt. The proposals come mainly from Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif.

Here’s an overview:

Federal Student Loan Refinancing Act
In May 2013, Gillibrand’s Federal Student Loan Refinancing Act was introduced in the Senate. The measure now has five other Democratic cosponsors. The bill is awaiting action by the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The measure would allow borrowers with interest rates above 4 percent to pay off their loans at a fixed rate of 4 percent. But it would apply only to graduates who received loans on or after July 1, 2006.

The proposed legislation would especially help older graduates, said Heather Jarvis, a student loan expert and consultant to borrowers and financial advisors. “It’s the most important legislation that’s currently pending,” Jarvis said. “It seeks to help people who are already struggling with student loan debt today. In general, Congress is more interested in changing things going forward.”

Student Loan Fairness Act
In March 2013, Rep. Bass of California introduced her proposed Student Loan Fairness Act. It has gained 52 Democratic cosponsors. It’s before the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training.

The proposed legislation would create a 10-year plan for borrowers to pay at 10 percent of their discretionary income—their income taking living expenses into account—after which their loans would be forgiven.

For his part,  SU graduate student DJ Summers’ interest in journalism grew as he was completing his undergraduate degree in Salt Like City,where he’s lived most of his life. He realized a master’s degree, he said, could help him accomplish his life-long dream of becoming a writer.

Summers has worked more than a dozen jobs to pay for his education. He ran a Domino’s Pizza in Minneapolis. He worked on an assembly line in Salt Lake City. He did construction work, washed windows and installed landscape lighting in Denver. And he painted houses in Boston.

“I’ve worked every bad job in the world,” he said. But that hasn’t been nearly enough. So he borrowed to pay the rest. About student debt, Summers doubts things will improve.

“I’m skeptical about pretty much everything that a politician puts in front me,” Summers said. “They’re trying to secure votes. They’re not trying to help me.”
(Pablo Mayo Cerqueiro is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)



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