May 28, 2020

Congress weighs student loan forgiveness, but there’s a partisan hurdle

Congress weighs student loan forgiveness, but there's a partisan hurdle


Congress weighs student loan forgiveness, but there's a partisan hurdle

Connor Mullen says he doubts he will ever be able to repay about $185,000 he’s accrued in  college loans.

Washington – When Connor Mullen learned the federal government had implemented a new program that temporarily eased the burden of the $185,000 in debt from his student loans, he reached for that help immediately.

The South Windsor native  earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Connecticut and attended law school at Boston University School of Law.  He thinks of himself as  “one of the lucky ones” since the pandemic has unleashed a wave of joblessness, especially among the recent grads.

“I am fortunate that I still have my job,” Mullen, 29, said. He works as a clerk for the Vermont judicial system and earns about $51,000 a year.

Lucky or not, he  snatched up the limited help Congress made available. “I took advantage of (it) the very day I heard about it,” he said.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, approved  by Congress in March includes a suspension of principal and interest payments through Sept. 30 for federally backed student loans like those owed by Mullen.

There’s a growing sense in Congress that more must be done to reform the way the United States finances higher education and plans to deliver relief to borrowers are taking off. But there’s no consensus on what should be done

The HEROES Act, the latest stimulus packaged considered by Congress,  proposes to increase the student loan payment deferral time by another year. But the proposal is part of a House Democratic bill that isn’t likely to be considered in the Senate.

And, unlike the CARES Act, that deferral would apply to private loans as well as federal student loans like Mullen’s.

The HEROES Act would also forgive up to $10,000 of student debt for those who borrowed money from all types of lenders.

That relief was scaled back right before the bill was voted on earlier this month. Initially, all Americans with student debt would be eligible for up to $10,000 in forgiveness. That was changed to restrict eligibility  for the forgiveness program to those who are “economically distressed” as of March 12, just before President Donald Trump made his national pandemic emergency declaration.

The bill defined those who are “economically distressed” as people in who were delinquent or in default on their student loan on that date; were in economic hardship deferment or forbearance on their student loan or were on an income-driven repayment plan.

While the student loan issue resonates from coast-to-coast, it has special impact in Connecticut. According to LendEDU, a consumer finance website, Connecticut college graduates had the highest student loan debt in the nation last year, an average of $38,776.

Mark Kantrowitz, a higher education expert and publisher of savingforcollege.com, said student loan forgiveness like that the HEROES Act would provide “will be contentious because Republicans don’t like forgiveness in any form.”

Congress weighs student loan forgiveness, but there's a partisan hurdle

Higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz expects a dropoff in college enrollment this fall.

But the GOP may come around, especially as Election Day comes nearer.

“It all depends on pressure from constituents, Kantrowitz said, “Republicans will get more and more worried as the election approaches and giving out money is a great way to buy votes.”

A drop in interest rates, and enrollment

Mullen is on an income-driven repayment plan that requires him to pay less than $400 a month. If he weren’t on the special plan, Mullen said interest and principal payments on his loans would normally cost him about $2,500 a month. But the smaller monthly payment Mullen negotiated does not pay down the principal on his loans, and only a fraction of the 6% in interest that accrues on his debt.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay them,”  Mullen says of his loans.

He said the $185,000 he owes for his education, most of it to pay for law school, is always at the back of his mind. He believes his student indebtedness will be an obstacle to buying a house or sending any children he may have to college.

Mullen said the only way to become debt-free is to eventually earn enough money as a successful attorney to rid himself of his student loans.

“Hopefully those loans will pay for themselves later,” he said.

Because of the rising cost of a college education and the especially high tuition for graduate school, the student loan market has risen more than 70% over the last 10 years, to $130 billion, and has recently outpaced the growth of auto loans, credit cards and mortgages.

One silver lining of the pandemic, however, is that new federal student loan rates, currently charging between 4% and 6% interest, will come down to a historic-low rate, about 2.5 % for undergraduate students.

But fewer students may be taking out those low-interest rates this fall.

Kantrowitz predicts college enrollment will drop by 10% to 20% this fall, as the U.S. policy of closed borders and other factors reduce the numbers of international students and some American students decide it’s too dangerous to go to college yet. The prospect of paying tuition to attend courses online is also a discouragement, Kantrowitz said.

“Who wants to pay tens of thousands of dollars to watch videos all day?” he asked.

Quinnipiac University announced this week it would welcome students back to campus, with new strict social distancing policies in place and classes that will be hybrids between online and in-person learning.

Sacred Heart University and the University of Bridgeport are also planning to hold in-person classes. Meanwhile, the University of Connecticut , Yale, the University of New Haven and other schools in the state are waiting to decide.





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