Murray, local college students talk loan debt

Senator says she will use their stories as ‘ammunition’ during debate in Congress

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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U.S. Sen. Patty Murray made a stop at Clark College in Vancouver on Thursday afternoon to glean stories from Southwest Washington college students she hopes to use as “ammunition” in an anticipated debate in Congress about student loan interest.

A law that keeps down the interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduates, which are provided to low-income students, is set to expire July 1. If Congress does not renew the law, interest rates on those loans, which are currently at 3.4 percent, are expected to double.

Clark College student and 24-year-old single mother Diane Robinson told Murray that she decided to pursue college after a divorce left her with nothing.

“I would not be here without the loans,” Robinson said. “It would just be impossible.”

She also told Murray that she worries about her looming student loan payments every single day. Robinson said she was raised to repay her debts, and not being able to pay off her loans “would eat me alive.”

Robinson was joined by a handful of other students from Clark College and Washington State University Vancouver, as well as financial aid and recruitment officials from both schools.

At Clark College, student borrowing has more than doubled in the past three years -- from $10.3 million borrowed to $20.8 million, said Karen Driscoll, the college’s director of financial aid.

One reason for the increase in financial aid is the spike in college tuition taking place nationwide, college officials told Murray. WSU has had to implement double-digit increases in tuition as a result of cuts to state funding.

Another reason for the increase in student aid is the jump in the number of older students entering college. They often have families, more financial responsibilities, and therefore need more help to afford college.

The amount of student loan debt taken on by people in the United States recently surpassed $1 trillion, Murray, told the group. Student loan debt is larger than the amount of credit card debt accumulated in the U.S.

The White House estimates that about 7.4 million borrowers would be affected if the subsidized Stafford loan interest rate doubles. Officials also estimate that keeping the rate low for one more year would save borrowers $1,000 over the life span of the loan.

Keeping subsidized Stafford loan interest rates low for one more year has about a $6 billion price tag, and Democrats and Republicans are taking different approaches to coming up with that money.

The U.S. House of Representatives, which has a Republican majority, passed its version of the student loan affordability legislation, which would keep the interest rate at 3.4 percent by tapping into a fund designated for preventative and public health programs. Republicans have called that pot of money a “slush fund” that doesn’t serve its intended purpose.

Democrats have countered that the money does, indeed, pay for preventive health services, including childhood immunizations and investments to reduce diabetes and heart disease. Democrats in the Senate, which has a Democratic majority, have suggested paying for the student loan measure by closing a loophole that keeps some wealthy individuals from paying taxes to the Social Security and Medicare programs.

‘Honestly, I’m scared’

Murray heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. She told the group on Thursday that she also had to rely on student loans to afford college.

More than one student described to Murray the trouble they had navigating information about their loans, evident when they were unexpectedly notified that some of their grants had run out because they had taken the maximum credits allotted. After jumping through some more hoops, they were able to recover a decent amount of that financial aid.

Dora Hernandez of WSUV told Murray that she is a first-generation college student. She became a mother at the age of 18, two months after graduating from high school. She worked two to three jobs at a time to support herself and her child.

It was at one of those jobs -- working the concession stand at a college event -- that inspired Hernandez to improve her life by earning a post-secondary degree. She received some financial aid, but she will still have $29,000 in student loans to pay back once she graduates this month, and she has no job lined up.

“I was flabbergasted to find out how much student loan debt I’ve accrued,” she told Murray, crying at times as she talked. “Honestly, I’m scared. … I hope Congress finds a way to keep interest rates on student loans down for students like myself.”

Murray said that when college graduates are strapped with so much debt, they aren’t able to contribute to the economy by buying a car or a home. In that way, the student loan debt problem is hurting the entire community, she said.

“I am deeply concerned about this,” Murray told the students and college officials. “I can take your words back to the Senate floor. …This is exactly what I needed to hear.”

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics