Student leaders from 20 Virginia colleges traveled to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to discuss their challenges paying for college and the impact of rising student loan obligations during a roundtable conversation organized by U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA). The students represented a diverse cross-section of Virginia’s public and private, two- and four-year colleges and universities.
An estimated 60% of Virginia college students graduate with student debt, and the average debt load in Virginia now tops $26,000 per graduate. Nationwide, Americans owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, outstripping credit cards and auto loans as the country’s leading source of non-mortgage debt, according to the Federal Reserve.
The students shared their concerns about the rising costs of higher education with Sens. Warner and Kaine, and many urged more transparency and flexibility in college loan application and repayment programs.
- Constance Garner, a senior at Longwood University, has worked two campus jobs to help cover the costs of room and board. “I am from a very small town in southern Virginia where students are lucky to receive any type of higher education, much less a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution,” Garner said. She expects to graduate owing more than $35,000 in student debt.
- William and Mary student Yohance Whitaker recommended more transparency and consumer information for potential borrowers when they’re filling-out their standardized financial aid form, called FAFSA. “I’d really like to see some kind of program where we’re educating our students on what it means when they’re looking at their FAFSA, what it means when they’re looking at their loans. What are some of the ways we can educate our students so that when they’re looking at their loans, they know what makes better sense for their own financial situation?”
- Tralen Neal, a senior at Mary Baldwin College, discussed the physical and emotional impacts of financial stress felt by many students and their families as they struggle to pay for college. “My mother is a single parent and all financial responsibility fell on her,” Neal said. “I was forced to miss the first couple of days because my mother did not have the funds to pay for the semester. The financial burden caused severe stress on me that caused me to become ill,” said Neal, who expects to graduate with $30,000 in student debt.
- Richard Bland College student Reeve Ashcraft expressed concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability in overall college costs, noting that faculty members and administrators at some U.S. colleges “earn seven-figure salaries while their students are graduating with five-figure debt.”
- James Madison University student Ryan Windels said many of his classmates may not understand the full impact of their obligations under the dizzying array of student loan programs. “I was talking with some seniors who are graduating with me in May, who don’t know what their loan payment schedule is going to be, they don’t know what they owe in the first year and as much as it is crushing them… I think that’s something that we can easily do better, educating people on how the loans work and what they should expect coming out.”
- Virginia Union University student Quanaisha Smith-Epps worries about the opportunity costs of college debt. She says the need to work while attending school limits the ability of many students to pursue internships and other opportunities which could provide a head start on an eventual career.
As the U.S. Senate begins consideration of the Higher Education Act, lawmakers will consider a proposal to allow borrowers to refinance existing loans to achieve lower interest rates. Senate Democrats have united behind a package of initiatives, dubbed #InTheRed, designed to address college affordability and student debt issues. Both Virginia Senators have introduced specific proposals as well.
“These campus leaders offered compelling personal stories to illustrate the crippling impact of student loan debt on a generation of young Virginians, limiting their options and opportunities as they graduate and join the workforce and plan their futures,” Sen. Warner said. “As the first person in my family to complete college, I know that if I had graduated with today’s levels of student debt, I would not have had opportunities to try – and to fail – with several of my early business ventures.”
Sen. Warner, who eventually went on to cofound the wireless company Nextel, introduced two pieces of legislation last week designed to help borrowers better manage their student loan debts: one would make income-based repayment the default option for borrowers, and the other would allow employers to apply pre-tax income to help their employees with student loan payments. Sen. Warner also is an original cosponsor ofThe Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which will provide college-bound students powerful new tools for comparing colleges and universities on measures such as total cost, likelihood of graduating, and potential earnings by program.
Sen. Kaine has introduced legislation tackling college affordability concerns, including increased dual enrollment options for high school students and additional tools to help students and families better calculate college costs. Kaine has also introduced the Jumpstart Our Businesses By Supporting Students (JOBS) Act,legislation that would amend the Higher Education Act by expanding Pell Grant eligibility to students enrolled in short-term job training programs.
“Senator Warner and I hosted this roundtable to hear directly from student leaders at universities and colleges across Virginia on ways we can help alleviate the burden of student loan debt, which has surpassed credit card debt in America. We also discussed pathways that can make higher education more affordable, including dual enrollment courses during high school and career and technical education programs,” Sen. Kaine said. “I’m focused on college affordability because students should be able to afford a higher education and have a successful start to their careers without being weighed down by insurmountable debt.”
The roundtable included student representatives from Christopher Newport University, the College of William and Mary, Ferrum College, George Mason University, Hampton University, James Madison University, Longwood University, Mary Baldwin College, Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University, Radford University, Randolph-Macon College, Richard Bland College, Thomas Nelson Community College, Tidewater Community College, University of Mary Washington, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia State University, and Virginia Union University.