Sen. Patty Murray wants to hear your student debt story

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, The Washington Post   ·   Link to Article

There are more than 40 million Americans with a story about paying off their student debt, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) wants to hear them all.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday launched a comment form on her website, encouraging people to share their struggles to afford college and manage student loans. Murray said the collection of stories is meant to keep pressure on Republicans to work across the aisle to address college affordability.

“The high cost of college and the crushing burden of student debt is holding back far too many students and families in Washington state and across the country,” Murray said. “I want to hear their experiences with skyrocketing college costs and unbearable student debt and how these challenges are affecting their lives, their education and their future.”

The portal arrives as Congress gears up to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the sweeping legislation that among other things governs federal financial aid. As student debt approaches $1.3 trillion, surpassing credit cards and auto loans, members of both parties agree that the burden of debt is affecting economic mobility.

Still, there is little consensus on solutions, in part, because there is little agreement on the root cause of the problem. Republicans tend to blame the near limitless flow of federal dollars to students for the skyrocketing cost of college, and they support expanding the role that private lenders play in the market.

For instance, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) introduced legislation last year to create a legal framework for what are known as income-share agreements, in which investors would front students the money to pay for college in exchange for a percentage of their future earnings. The concept is gaining traction within the party as a way to shift more of the responsibility of financing higher education onto private actors and away from the federal government.

Democrats, however, have been making the case for greater federal investment to lower the cost of college through free community college and increased Pell grants for needy students. Last week, Senate Democrats announced a campaign to draw attention to three pieces of legislation supporting the community college and Pell proposals as well as a plan to let borrowers refinance federal student loans at a lower interest rate.

The campaign, dubbed “In the Red” (as in making sure students don’t end up in the red), was quietly kicked off during the president’s State of the Union address this month, where dozens of Senate Democrats hosted students as their guests and donned “Students #InTheRed” buttons.

Even though student debt has captured attention in the presidential campaign, it unclear whether Congress will make much, if any, headway on the issue in an election year.