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Lisa Brown: Americans need student debt relief

What does it say about our nation’s priorities when we make it easier to refinance a car loan than a student loan? Hard to believe, but it is true.

I was the first in my family to attend college, and I needed grants and loans to get through undergraduate and graduate school. It wasn’t easy back then, but it’s harder now, because federal Pell Grants have not kept pace with the cost of college, forcing students to take on more debt as they pursue their dreams. I witnessed this firsthand as chancellor of WSU Spokane, and teaching at Eastern and Gonzaga.

About 44 million Americans carry nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt – two-thirds of it is held by women, making it more difficult for them to get ahead. The average student debt in Washington state is $23,000.

That debt is a barrier to achieving a higher education degree and the opportunities that come with it. It also prevents young people from starting families and businesses, buying homes, and participating in our economy. We should be helping them, but House Republican leaders, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, are moving in the opposite direction. For instance, in 2014, Rep. McMorris Rodgers voted to prevent 25 million people from refinancing loans at lower rates. In 2013, she voted to increase student loan interest rates. She voted to tax graduate student financial assistance, and voted multiple times to cut Pell Grants, which covered the smallest portion of college costs in its 40-year history in 2018. That would hurt the more than 23,000 students in the 5th District who were awarded Pell Grants.

These votes also hurt the more than 66,000 higher education students in Eastern Washington. We can do better.

Led by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, an update of the Higher Education Act is underway, and I support her efforts to include debt relief. Since the last reauthorization, in 2007, the cost of student loan debt has tripled. In the House, I support the Federal Student Loan Refinancing Act, which would lower the interest rate on federal student loans and allow Americans with multiple loans to consolidate and refinance them.

Along with lower costs and refinancing, we should expand loan forgiveness programs. For example, students in medical, nursing and pharmacy programs can have their loans reduced or forgiven if they agree to work in underserved rural areas. We should encourage more of these mutually beneficial arrangements.

For many attending colleges, universities, and technical schools in the 5th District, the choice to take on debt was a difficult one. Student debt can last decades – or even a lifetime. It’s the most difficult debt to discharge. And making matters worse, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wants to make it even harder for those defrauded by financial institutions to be made whole. That is not right.

Business leaders say they need more skilled employees. But we’re making it harder for people to access college or specialized training. And not everyone wants or needs a four-year degree. That’s why I’ve supported community and technical colleges and apprenticeship programs.

I’ve worked hard to help make college more affordable. In the state Senate, as federal support for college education dwindled, I helped pass legislation creating the College Bound Scholarship, one of the best scholarship programs in the nation. The program covers two years of tuition for low-income students – students who may not have attended college at all, due to its cost. I also supported another great cost-saving measure: Running Start, a program for motivated high school students to get college credits. I sponsored and passed a bill providing tuition assistance to military members, and voted to expand tuition waivers to veterans and their families. I’ve also voted against removing tuition assistance for students who need extra time to graduate. As Senate majority leader, I helped WSU and EWU and our community college system obtain hundreds of millions in funding for university buildings in Spokane, Cheney and Pullman.

I understand the needs of students and the pressures they, and colleges and universities, face. On Monday, I’m starting a campus tour at WSU in Pullman of our region’s colleges and universities, to listen to student issues and discuss the solutions I’ll work for in Congress.

We need a representative in office taking action to address these issues. That means moving beyond talking points, and actually voting to solve the student debt crisis. The bottom line is, if our government can bail out banks, then we can find ways to help young people held back by debt.


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