AFR Statement: The Senate Looks at Student Loan Debt

Student loan debt will be the focus of two Senate hearings this morning. The banking committee’s Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection will look at the experience of millions of borrowers struggling, in a depressed economy, to repay what are often huge sums of debt.

The subcommittee will hear about misinformation, routinely provided by loan servicers or debt collectors, that keeps many borrowers from securing relief, and often leaves them saddled with hefty late fees or tarnished credit.

Nancy Hoover of Denison University will testify about ill-conceived subcontracting arrangements that can cause important correspondence to be badly labeled and easily mistaken for junk mail, leading borrowers to inadvertently default on their loans. William Hubbard of Student Veterans of America will zero in on the problems of veterans who, in his words, have to “jump through excessive or impossible hoops” to apply for promised interest-rate reductions or assert rights supposedly bestowed on them by law.

Over at the Senate Budget Committee, the topic will be the impact of student loan debt not just on those who owe it but on the economy as a whole. That impact is profound. Altogether, 40 million Americans currently owe some $1.2 trillion in student loans. As mounting evidence demonstrates, student loans are making it hard for people to buy cars or homes, or even, in some cases, daily necessities. In one recent survey, 29 percent of borrowers said that student loan debt had caused them to delay getting married.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has introduced a bill, whose 26 copsonsors include Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Al Franken (D-Minn.), to let borrowers refinance old loan debt – often carrying interest rates of 7% or more – at rates more like those that Congress set for new loans last year.

Uncle Sam, under the current arrangements, is generating billions of dollars a year in revenue from student loans. That is unconscionable. “We should be investing in students,” Senator Warren has rightly said, “not turning them into a profit center to pay for subsidies to big agribusiness or to meet the payments on defense contracts.”

So this is a problem that fully deserves the double-barreled attention it is getting from the Senate. And more: it deserves meaningful action from regulators and legislators alike.