As another school year begins, there is much to be excited about. In the year to come, you will be challenged in your beliefs, you will meet new and interesting people, and you will learn skills and ideas that will prepare you for whatever you decide to do next. Unfortunately, for many of you, these opportunities will come at a high financial cost, requiring you to rely on student loans that will take, on average, a decade to pay off. This impacts the choices you can make about your futures — from where to work and live, to whether to pursue an advanced degree.
As Governor, I froze in-state tuition at the New Hampshire University System for the first time in 25 years and lowered it at our community colleges. But despite these efforts, New Hampshire continues to have the highest in-state tuition costs in the country, resulting in our state’s students graduating with the highest average student loan debt. This is unfair not only to each of you but also to the entirety of our state, which relies on college graduates as critical components of the workforce.
Even though New Hampshire’s low unemployment rate makes our state a desirable location for graduates, college debt, in combination with other factors like the high cost of housing and lack of public transportation, make it difficult for graduates to build a life here. It’s hard for graduates with high debt to find a place to live or purchase a car, let alone think about starting a family, saving for retirement, or purchasing a home.
Furthermore, graduates who might otherwise want to start a small business have told me they simply can’t afford to take the risk with the burden of student loan debt that they carry. In Congress, I have introduced legislation to provide relief for entrepreneurs and their employees to make it financially easier for them to start up by allowing a three-year deferment on their federal student loan payments and interest accrual while they grow their small businesses. However, this is just a start. In order to grow our economy, and bring opportunity to our communities, we need to lower student loan debt across the board.
Paying for college has not always been this hard. As recently as the 1980s, a Pell-grant eligible student could pay off their loans by working a summer job. Now, a similar student working a minimum wage job over the summer would have to work 21.2 hours a day in order to pay for their college education. This impossible circumstance is the result of both the increased price of an advanced degree, as well as a wage stagnation crisis that is making it increasingly difficult for hard-working Americans to get ahead and stay ahead.
As your Senator, I have been working to find solutions that will help remedy this challenge. Last year, I joined my colleagues in introducing the Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act which would reduce interest rates for borrowers by allowing those with outstanding student debt to refinance their student loans. Remarkably, since this piece of legislation was originally introduced on the Senate floor in 2014, student debt has gone up by more than $200 billion and has exceeded that of total credit card debt in the country – an indication this crisis has only gotten worse. It’s long past time for us to take action and pass this bill.
I have also worked to ensure that more graduates can access Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), a program that forgives loans for graduates who enter and stay in critical public service jobs. Graduates should be able to enter public service without fearing that they will never be able to pay off their student debt.
Unfortunately, the Trump Administration, led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, is making it even harder to pay back student loans by dismantling protections for student borrowers. In fact, the consumer protection official who is in charge of safeguarding student borrowers recently resigned in protest, citing the Trump Administration’s continued efforts to put predatory lenders over consumers and enacting policies with “far-reaching harm.”
For our economy to work for everyone, we must lower the burden of student loan debt. This is no easy task, and it will take a coordinated effort by elected officials and students alike to push for much-needed reform. I will keep fighting to ensure that those of you who pursue a postsecondary education are not penalized for it down the road. But you need to wage this fight too. You have the power to speak out, share your stories, and, crucially, get involved in the political process. Together, we can affect real change for our country and our state.
-Senator Maggie Hassan