Warren and Cummings Tackling the Student Debt Crisis

By: Natalie Higgins, PHENOM’s Executive Director

April 3rd, 2015

Yesterday, I attended a forum, “Tackling the Student Debt Crisis,” at UMass Boston hosted by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Elijah Cummings. It was one in a series of forums held by the Middle Class Prosperity Project. PHENOM supports Senator Warren’s fight against the student debt crisis and held a rally last September in support of Senator Warren’s Student Loan Refi Bill in Government Center. As someone who has more than $100,000 in federal student loan debt, I feel this crisis every day. Federal programs like Income-Based Repayment (IBR) and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) are the only reason I can afford to work for an awesome nonprofit organization like PHENOM.


I was excited to see what issues the forum would address, but also hoped the discussion would recognize that student loan debt interest rates are just one of the problems making higher education unaffordable — and that we should explore ways to reduce the cost of public higher education, so that students and families are not forced into taking out student loans in the first place.

Senator Warren kicked off the event with the stark reality of the student debt crisis — that in the last year, since she first introduced the Student Loan Refinancing legislation, 1 MILLION more borrowers fell behind on their student loan payments and student loan debt as risen to $1.3 TRILLION! Representative Cummings lamented that too many students and their families face a scary decision, when they’re forced to mortgage their future to get a college education. This is even more problematic when you consider that the value of a college education is higher than ever (students with a college degree earning 98% more than those who do not). This is not the time to cut state and federal funding for public higher ed. I couldn’t agree with Senator Warren anymore that we need to “bring back an America that believes in public higher education!”


The forum consisted of two panels, the first filled with people struggling with student loan debt and the second with experts on the student loan debt crisis. A number of themes emerged. First, public higher education, which used to be the “affordable and accessible” option, continues to lose that status as state and federal funding is cut. Second, as students take on mountains of student debt, they are forced to drop out, reconsider their career paths, or put off graduate school, because of the burden student loans are putting on them and their families. Third, the current system of student loan servicing is not working, and often borrowers do not know about assistance programs available to them.

The students’ concerns struck me, because they sound so much like my own concerns. One student asked aloud, what if she wanted to get married, buy a home, or save for retirement — all of those decisions become much more anxiety-ridden with the weight of student debt payments. My heart broke when one of the students spoke about her dream to be a guidance counselor, but that the required graduate degree seemed unrealistic given the amount of student debt she already had. Representative Cummings nailed it when he said “it’s one thing to go to college, it’s another thing to go to college under this stress.” It is unacceptable that students are in college, worrying about their loans, and even more worrying about the interest that is already accruing on their unsubsidized loans. I was hopeful that many others are outraged by the growing Student Debt Crisis, particularly when the event quickly filled and became standing-room-only.


Chancellor Motley started his testimony with how proud he was that more than half of students at UMass Boston are first generation students. I was the first in my family to attend and graduate from college, and I am very proud of the education I received at UMass Amherst. But as aid continues to be slashed to both institutions and to students, the UMass campuses and all public higher education institutions become increasingly inaccessible to first generation, minority, and low-income students. There expert panel suggested a number of solutions: making PELL Grants available year round to assist nontraditional students (75% of all college students nationally), increasing financial aid to cover the majority of the costs for low-income students (as it did in the late 1980s), increasing assistance in the financial aid application process, streamlining student financial aid processes with other benefits programs (e.g., SNAP), and creating systems to help demystify financial aid (e.g., differentiating between grants and loans on a financial aid shopping sheet).

Representative Cummings said the Student Loan Debt Crisis is “bigger than us” and “about generations unborn.”  The FY16 Republican Budget cuts PELL Grants and guts programs like Pay As You Earn (PAYE). This is a real issue for Massachusetts residents, where more than 980,000 of us owe more than $24 BILLION in student debt. This has a direct impact on borrowers’ mental health, job choices, and ability to participate in the economy. Our partners over at Higher Ed Not Debt have some fabulous actions set up for support the Student Loan Debt Refinancing Bill. We need to TAKE ACTION, and let Congress know that investment in public higher education is fundamental to success of our communities and our economy.

If you want to see the whole “Tackling the Student Debt Crisis” forum- follow this link.