BOISE – Idaho’s newest congressman-elect is a 42-year-old attorney and former state lawmaker, but he’s also still paying off thousands in student loans.
“It’s how I got through law school,” said Idaho Rep.-elect Raul Labrador. “It worked fine.”
The Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit research group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation, says it’s not uncommon for Americans, particularly those with professional degrees, to still be paying off their student loans into their 40s. “It’s taking longer and longer as people borrow more,” said Edie Irons, the project’s communications director. “We’re definitely troubled by it.”
Labrador reported on his congressional financial disclosure form that he still owes between $15,000 and $50,000 in federal student loans. “I’ve been paying on it for, I think, 15 years now,” he said. He said he doesn’t know exactly how much he owes, but it’s toward the lower end of the disclosure form’s wide range.
Irons said today’s law school graduates are typically coming out of school with $80,000 to $90,000 in debt, and for many, that’s on top of loans for their undergraduate education. Some student loans take as long as 30 years to pay off.
“Our organization is devoted to reducing the burdens of student debt, because we recognize the effect that it can have, not only on families, but on our whole society, when so many people are starting out life tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” she said. “It makes it hard to buy a house or start a business or start a family or go to graduate school, or do a lot of things that college education is supposed to make possible, not make harder.”
Labrador said he hasn’t studied the federal student loan system enough to have an opinion on whether it needs changing. He noted that he purposely avoided taking out student loans for his undergraduate education, taking out just one small one, obtaining scholarships and working part-time all through school.
“But I believe if that’s the only way you can go to school, you should consider it,” he said. “You don’t have to go to the most expensive school, you don’t have to take out the most loans. Go to in-state schools or other schools that are less expensive.”
Labrador said he was admitted to Georgetown University law school, but decided it was out of his price range, so he attended the University of Washington law school instead. “You have to make decisions about where you go to school and what you can afford,” the Idaho Republican said. At UW, where after the first year he paid in-state tuition, the cost was half as much as Georgetown, he said.
Labrador said he was glad he was able to take out student loans, but, “If it hadn’t been there, I would’ve found another way to do it.”
Irons noted that President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, famously said during the 2008 presidential campaign that the only way they were able to pay off their student loans was with the royalties from Obama’s two best-selling books.
“There are a lot of things that need to be done to start addressing this problem, because we have millions of people who are deep in debt with student loans already,” Irons said. “For future students, we want to see more public investment in public institutions of higher education, we need to slow the rate of tuition increases, and provide more need-based grant aid for people who need it, so they don’t have to go so deep into debt.”
The project also favors other changes to make student loans “safer and more manageable for people who have them.”
Irons said she doesn’t know of any other current members of Congress who still are paying on their student loans, but said, “I would be surprised if this guy is the first. I wouldn’t be surprised if other really young members of Congress with expensive professional degrees may have found themselves still paying it off.”