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George Mason student shares debt struggles at congressional forum

Senate Democrats held a forum on student debt at the Capitol, hosting students who shared their stories of struggling with education loans. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Continuing a push to make college affordability a congressional priority, Senate Democrats held a forum Wednesday on the social and economic impact of student debt.

The Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee event drew education advocates and nearly two dozen lawmakers, some of whom invited college students from their states to share their experiences paying for school.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) hosted George Mason University senior Kalia Harris, who told lawmakers about her family’s difficulty covering tuition. Despite being from Richmond, Harris still amassed $38,000 in debt to attend the public college in Virginia. She ran into problems her final year in school when a slight bump in her parents’ income disqualified her for the Pell grants she relied on throughout college.

“My family was $250 over the amount recommended for the Pell grant, so we lost it,” Harris said. “I’ve worked three to four jobs to hold down tuition payments because my family can’t pay for it. We’ve increased loans every year, and the tuition at Mason has gone up every year.”

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State support for Virginia’s public colleges and universities is among the lowest in the nation. Virginia spends $1,870 less per college student than it did in the 2007-2008 academic year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank. Meanwhile, the sticker price at Virginia state schools has increased an average 36.2 percent above the rate of inflation since the 2007-2008 school year, compared to an average 28 percent nationally.

George Mason, like other universities, sets aside money to help students in dire need who are at risk of dropping out of school. Harris tapped the so-called Stay Mason Student Support Fund last spring, when she was short $2,000 needed to register for classes. She and other students worked with the administration last year to create the fund.

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“I’ve always struggled and had to register for my classes late. Imagine that stress when you’re in chemistry class trying to understand equations, and there’s this equation of ‘how am I going to pay to stay in this school?'” said Harris, who is studying community health. While she said she was grateful for the onetime grant that let her register for classes, she called it a “band-aid solution.”

About 60 percent of Virginians graduate with an average $26,000 in student debt, a little less than the national average of nearly $30,000. Decades of state disinvestment in higher education has led to increases in tuition at state schools, shifting more of the burden of paying for college onto families.

Democrats have been making the case for federal and state partnerships to lower the cost of higher education by making two years of community college free. That way, families would only be on the hook for the remaining two years needed to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Free community college is one of three legislative proposals at the heart of a larger Democratic campaign to address college affordability. Lawmakers also want to index future Pell grant awards to inflation to ensure the government aid covers more of the cost of college, and allow borrowers to refinance their federal student loans at a lower interest rate. Although the bills have all been introduced before, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y) said Democratic lawmakers will bring them back to the floor in a month or two.

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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.

Congress is gearing 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. But there is minimal agreement on how best to address the problem.

“We have offered pieces of legislation. We’ve offered amendments. And they’ve all been voted against without exception by every Republican,” Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said at the forum. “This is not a new issue with us, but it is becoming more pronounced because the biggest problem we have in America today regarding debt is student debt.”

Senate Republicans like Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, support measures that would make it easier for students to access money for college, like simplifying the FAFSA application for financial aid. Yet he, like other Republicans, believe greater government investment in higher education fails to address the root cause of the problem — the flood of federal dollars to students that gives colleges no incentive to lower costs.

At the forum, Schumer agreed that colleges have to do more to rein in costs, though the federal government has a role to play in expanding aid.

“We can’t let the tuition keep going up and up. Our colleges have some responsibility here. We raise Pell grants, and they raise tuition, ” he said. “Most of our thrust has been getting more government assistance. That’s good. I’m all for it. But we also have to stop tuition from going up.”

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