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Posted at 09:20 AM ET, 05/07/2012

Rep. Kathy Hochul confronts student loan horror stories


Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) speaks on May 24, 2011 after winning a special election to represent New York’s 26th Congressional District. (Harry Scull Jr - AP)
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) was one of 13 Democrats to vote for a House Republican plan to extend lower college student loan interest rates. She voted for the bill even though it would cut $6 billion from a preventative health fund to pay for the lower rates — an idea opposed by the White House and most Democrats.

“It was the only legislation we had before us,” she said in an interview. “It was the only chance I had to keep my word.”

She said she’s trying to keep her word to the students who attend the more than 35 colleges and universities across her western New York District, including the University of Rochester, the Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Buffalo, Monroe Community College and St. John Fisher College.

Hochul said she’s heard all too often from students about the rising costs of loans, the incredible burden the five- and six-figure sums place on young people, and the dreams they’ve decided to abandon or delay in order to pay down debt.

Hochul wasn’t happy about voting for the GOP plan: “I’d say shame on the Republicans for putting such an unfair choice in front of us. There’s no connection between student loans and health care, no connection at all. But I don’t set the agenda, they don’t take our amendments, I tried to support amendments, but we were forced to make a decision and I made a commitment to those students.”

Those students include 14 she met Friday at the University of Rochester, who rely on federal student loans to pay for their education. U of R, as it’s known, maintains world-class medical, science and technology programs, but roughly 3,000 of its 4,600 undergraduate students use subsidized or unsubsidized federal student loans to pay tuition.

“The only thing I can think about is putting off this debt,” Dan Cohn told Hochul. “I’m at least 50 under.”

He means $50,000 — but he later said the total debt is likely higher.

Cohn, 22, grew up in Cleveland. His father is a factory worker, his mother is a cashier. He studied public health and planned to graduate this month and study for a Master’s degree. But he said he’s putting off graduate school, because he doesn’t want to add to his debt.

Amanda Rosemore, a senior economics major from Cloquet, Minn., told Hochul that her parents are taking out a second loan to help pay for her degree.

“The crazy thing is that I have a full tuition scholarship,” Rosemore said. But additional loans to pay for books and housing mean she has $27,000 in loans, expects to face $10,000 in interest payments and only has a decade to pay it off.

Hochul nodded as Cohn and Rosemore told their stories, but said later that she’s heard far worse. Once on a flight back to Washington she met a father who said his son has $70,000 in debt and that his younger son doesn’t want to go to college for fear of facing similar debts. She met another student with more than $120,000 in student loan debt, and yet another said she has three jobs to help pay for her debts and plans to find a fourth job.

“And when they get out of school, through no fault of their own, the jobs aren’t there,” Hochul said in an interview. “For these people to not be able to pay off their student loans, it’s unfair. They want to work, they don’t want to sit on their parent’s couches going to Monster.com looking for jobs. They want to be out in the work force. They have nothing to do with the economy tanking a few years ago.”

Though Hochul said she came to U of R to hear the stories of struggling college students, she ended up doing most of the talking. She assured the students that Congress would find a way to keep the loan rates low. And she took a swipe at Republicans for forcing her to vote on a bill to help struggling college students by cutting funding for health-care.

“It seems like we should be able to reduce these interest rates without having to extract blood somewhere else,” she said. “What’s wrong with this picture people? Why can’t we just do that? Why does there have to be a painful ‘pay for?’ Why do you have to smack another program that might have value?”

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