For too many young people across Virginia, college is nearly out of reach because of rising costs. And for too many graduates, options and opportunities are being limited due to mountains of student debt.
The average college student in Virginia today can expect to graduate with more than $26,000 in student loans. Nationwide, Americans owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, outstripping credit cards and auto loans as the country’s leading source of non-housing debt.
Earlier this week, I invited students from 20 colleges and universities across Virginia to come to Capitol Hill to share their concerns about the rising costs of higher education. They discussed the impact of rising levels of student debt on their futures. Here's what some of them told me and Sen. Tim Kaine:
- A senior at Longwood University has worked two campus jobs to help cover the costs of room and board, yet she still expects to graduate owing more than $35,000 in student debt.
- A senior at Mary Baldwin College discussed the physical and emotional impact of the financial stress: “I was forced to miss the first couple of days because my mother did not have the funds to pay for the semester. The financial burden caused severe stress on me that caused me to become ill,” she said. She expects to graduate with $30,000 in student debt.
- A Virginia Union University student worries about the ways college debt can limit opportunities outside of the classroom. She said the need to work while also attending school limits the ability of many students to pursue internships and other opportunities which might give a head start to a career.
As these stories show, the cost of college is having a crippling impact on a generation of young Virginians. That’s why I’ve introduced bipartisan proposals to provide some new tools.
- The Dynamic Student Loan Repayment Act will streamline the confusing array of federal income-based repayment programs. It caps repayments at 10% of income, allowing borrowers to repay more as they earn more.
- The Employer Participation in Repayment Act will help employers recruit and retain talented workers by allowing them to help pay down an employee’s student loan debts with pre-tax income. Right now, an employer can help cover the cost of ongoing education — but they cannot help employees by applying pre-tax earnings to pay down student loans for education that’s already occurred. That’s crazy.
- And to provide greater transparency on college affordability issues, and to help students and their families make better informed decisions about where to go to college, I’ve introduced The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act. It puts on a single website, by degree program and by university, a bunch of really relevant information: What’s the cost? How many students complete the program? What’s their average student debt? How many find jobs in that field of study? What are the average starting salaries?
As Congress prepares to work on comprehensive legislation to reform higher education, please know that I’ll be fighting to make college more accessible — and college loan debts more manageable — for all Virginians.
Mark R. Warner