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Students Push For Debt Relief at Federal Higher Ed Hearing


Student activists — some with “drowning in debt” T-shirts — on Wednesday urged the U.S. Department of Education to adopt a plan to make student loans more manageable at the fourth public hearing on the recommendations of The National Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

The department has been holding public hearings to debate and later implement recommendations of the blue-ribbon commission. College affordability advocates say the department has leeway to implement much-needed changes in student loans.

The State Public Interest Research Groups, an alliance of colleges, student groups and the loan industry, created the five-point plan, which higher education advocate Luke Swarthout outlined at the hearing. The plan calls for the department to limit student loan payments to a reasonable percentage of income — not more than 15 percent — so borrowers can cover other costs like housing and food. It also suggests considering dependent expenses when establishing a repayment schedule, simplifying the process of applying for hardship deferrals, canceling any remaining debt after 20 years of payment and preventing added interest when borrowers face unpredictable hardships.

“A college education presents students with new opportunities, be they economic, social or intellectual,” Swarthout says. “If we allow the way we finance college to undermine those core opportunities, we have done a great disservice to our nation and our citizens.”

The United States Students Association, the Association of Michigan Universities, the California State Student Association, the Oregon Student Association, the University of California Student Association, the United Council of Wisconsin Students and the Utah Student Association signed a letter urging the Education Department to protect student borrowers from high interest charges and to make college more affordable.

“It is important for students to not only be able to afford the repayment of their loans, but there should be safeguards in place to help them in times of financial instability,” said the letter.

Students from colleges in Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey also supported the five-point program and spoke of their struggles with mounting debt and career choices.

Nicolette Schellato, a senior at Salem State College in Salem, Mass., is a single mother and low-income student at the college. She testified that the “high cost of college can be intimidating when you come from close to nothing.

“Not all are lucky as me to do unpaid internships or have the time to participate in student government,” added Emma Simpson, student president at the University of Maryland-College Park. “I am speaking on behalf of 10,000 students at Maryland who need an opportunity to excel.”

Andrew Klenkowski, a student from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said he could afford college only by joining the National Guard and serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Like the other students, he backed the five-point access and affordability plan and emphasized the need to create national programs for returning veterans.

The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions also provided testimony during the hearing. Jean Avnet Morse, vice chair of the council and president of the Middle States Commission of Higher Education said C-RAC supports waiting to adopt new regulations until after the U.S. Congress completes the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

“We recommend … improving student learning without derailing the important work of regional accreditors to improve student learning that is underway,” she said.  


By Shilpa Banerji

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