by Mary Ellen Flannery
When NEA Student Program chair Chelsey Herrig was paying for college, her mother stopped going to the doctor when she was sick because she knew the $45 co-pay could buy Herrig a week’s worth of groceries instead. Because her mom’s health is important, Herrig stopped asking her for help — and got a fourth job to help pay her student bills.
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And still, despite attending a public college and working at least 30 hours each week, Herrig will graduate next year with about $45,000 in student debt, she told Senate Democrats on Wednesday. “My mother knew college was expensive but she never told me I couldn’t go. She knows it’s my dream to be an educator,” said Herrig.
Thankfully, for Herrig and so many others, Senate Democrats have a solution to the nightmare that is student debt in America, where 43 million Americans owe $1.3 trillion in student debt.
The Reducing Educational Debt (RED) Act, introduced last week by Senators Baldwin (D-WI), Hirono (D-HI), and Warren (D-MA), would allow students to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates; increase federal funding to states that commit to free community college; and increase Pell Grants for the poorest Americans.
“What have we done to kids in this country? We’re taking away the American Dream!” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) during Wednesday’s forum hosted by the Senate’s Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN.)
Student debt bigger than house mortgage
Senators also heard from New Jersey community college professor Mecheline Farhat Roldan, a New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) member, who, along with her husband, owes an incredible $170,000 in student loans. Farhat Roldan, whose parents escaped a civil war in Lebanon, first went to community college, followed by two years at Seton Hall University, and then earned a master’s degree from John Jay College, which is part of the public City University of New York.
Her family’s student loan debt is bigger than their home mortgage, Roldan told Senators. It has become such a huge weight in her life that she skipped two maternity leaves so as not to lose any income, and greeted her students online from her hospital bed two days after giving birth.
“I worked hard. I did everything by the rules. And I’m giving back to my community,” said Roldan, who teaches and advises students at Bergen Community College. “Honestly, it makes me feel as if I were deceived by this ‘land of opportunity.’”
And she’s not the only one. Senators hear painful stories of student debt like these everywhere, said Klobuchar.
“We need to rethink the promise that we made in this country, the promise that every child will have access to a free, public education, K through 12. Back then, that was enough. Today, in the 21st century high-skills global economy, that is not enough anymore,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the architect of a bill to provide free tuition for eligible Americans at community and technical colleges, and also at minority-serving four-year colleges.
The RED Act
In addition to creating financial incentives for states that make community college free, the new RED Act would reduce interest rates for student borrowers. “It’s obscene,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), that the federal government makes millions of dollars by lending money to students with interest rates at 9 percent, while it lends to big banks at 1 percent. “I am ready to fight on this!” she promised.
The RED Act would also increase Pell Grants, which are federal tuition grants for the poorest Americans. Back in 1980, Pell Grants covered 100 percent of the cost of a 2-year college and 77 percent of four-year colleges. These days, as the cost of tuition has soared, their purchasing power has collapsed: Now Pell covers less than a third of the cost of four-year colleges.
“Pressure our colleagues,” Klobuchar urged students at Wednesday’s forum, to force Congress to take action on the RED Act —the more pressure, the better, she added.
Also, to learn more about NEA’s Degreees Not Debt campaign, and to help our members advocate for expand income-driven repayment programs and teacher loan forgiveness programs, take NEA’s Degrees Not Debt pledge.