NEW YORK (MainStreet) — You don't need a GPS-tracking device to find the center of gravity for the student loan crisis. It's located in Washington, D.C.
Of the roughly $1.3 trillion in student loans that are unpaid, just over $1 trillion were made by the federal government. While the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Department of Education are juggling a range of fiascos from the for-profit college crack-up to loan servicing and debt collection, borrowers still struggle in all 50 states. Meanwhile, state governments in Massachusetts, Illinois, California and elsewhere have tried to fill the gap by suing the industry’s bad actors. Federal regulators and elected officials have often followed their lead.
”We don’t have to wait for congress to do something about student loans," said Matt Lesser, member of the Connecticut state House of Representatives and chair of the state banking committee.
"The new majority in (Federal) Congress doesn’t understand how important this is to our generation,” said the 29-year-old Lesser. “They’re trying to block efforts to give debt relief to victims of profit colleges out of their hard-earned money.” Lesser added that a half million people in Connecticut, which has a population of 3.6 million, have student loans. Connecticut is the first state to pass a student loan bill of rights and create a student loan ombudsman, similar to the one at the CFPB.
Lesser noted that the Obama administration's stalled plan to make community college free would not necessarily amount to a rising tide that lifts all boats. "I’ve heard the proposals to help students with community college and to make college affordable," he said. "That is so important, but what Connecticut is doing is focusing on people who already have debt.” Just as important are the student loan servicers who have been accused of pushing borrowers into payback plans that maximize fee revenue while doing little or nothing to streamline opaque borrower interfaces. Lesser related an anecdote about the acting chair of the Connecticut state banking department who couldn’t figure out how to negotiate with his own student loan servicer.
Lesser, who made his remarks during a panel on student debt at the Generation Progress conference in Washington earlier this month, characterized the new majority in the U.S. Congress as being out of touch with their constituents. "Republicans just don't get it," said Lesser. "They still think that you can pay off your student loan by getting a summer job. That ended before my lifetime."
Other conferees thought that tuition free community college represented a huge benefit to Millennials. Alexandra Quilty-Flores, vice president of the US Student Association said, “We’re an organization of 1.5 million people who believe that education is a right.” A 2014 graduate of the University of Oregon, she cited Oregon’s experience with free community college as an opportunity to act locally when the Federal government is asleep at the switch. Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a bill this month that will give the state's recent high school graduates tuition-free community college. Other states are considering doing the same.
"In Oregon, students just won two years of free community college,” Quilty-Flores said. “That’s because of the work we’ve been doing to force this conversation to happen. We need to be rooted in real life experiences and people directly affected need to do something."
High school seniors in Tennessee are also eligible to attend two years of community college at no cost. Unlike the Oregon program, Tennessee’s does not have a minimum GPA requirement. Tennessee students are required to perform eight hours of community service and meet with mentors.
Another important issue the federal government won't touch is the option to re-finance federal student loans at lower interest rates. Mortgages and credit cards can be re-financed. Federal student loans can't.
“We have really pushed for change at the state level and think that states should provide re-financing," said Annalise Eicher, program and development director of One Wisconsin Now, a group that is organizing around student loans and is fighting Governor Scott Walker's plans to downsize higher education in the state. "We have state-based legislation we are pushing in Wisconsin. We think that states should be able to provide refinancing for folks who have student loans. The Federal government isn’t going to pass legislation that will allow you to refinance student loans, so let’s do it on the state level."