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Will Congress Work For You on Student Debt Reform?

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President Barack Obama speaks to students and parents at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., Friday, May 4, 2012, about his efforts to prevent interest rates from doubling on federal student loans.

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

As we settle into Obama's second term and a new Congress, one of the most pressing issues is reforming the student loan system.
The cost of college is skyrocketing and current student debt has surpassed $1 trillion, $864 billion of which is backed by the federal government.

Stifling student debt isn't just affecting young people. Americans older than 60, for example, owe about $36 billion in student loans. So while making higher education more affordable across the board would be a step in the right direction for the future, allowing Americans to refinance their federal student loans would be far more comprehensive for the country right now.

The question now is: How likely is Congress to act on student loan reform?

While polling on the issue has been sparse, there is a track record of support. A provision in the Affordable Care Act that cut out the middle man of private banks and allowed the government to provide college loans directly to students was favored at the time, 64 to 34 percent. Yet even with its popularity, this provision only became law as an attachment to the bill through reconciliation, which meant it needed only 51 votes in the U.S. Senate rather than the normal 60 to avoid a filibuster.    

Robert Applebaum, founder of ForgiveStudentLoanDebt.com, has immersed himself in the issue.

"I was watching the debate over Obama's stimulus plan, nine days after the inauguration, and got pissed off at the terms of the debate," Applebaum told Campus Progress. "We were talking about more tax-cuts, trickle down economics and corporate welfare, but if the goal was to truly stimulate the economy then we should put more money into the hands of people who will spend it."

After Applebaum's essay, "Forgive Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy," gained traction online, Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.) hired Applebaum as a part-time legislative assistant to work on what became The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012. 

Applebaum started a petition with SignOn.org that garnered more than one million signatures in favor of the bill, but ultimately the bill went nowhere, demonstrating the uphill challenge faced by reform advocates.

"It was referred to committee, and we organized to try to get the attention of Chairman Kline, but he never brought it up for hearings," Applebaum said. 

Clarke was redistricted out of office later in 2012, but his bill had 24 co-sponsors including Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who is Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Other strong allies for reform include Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.). Allies in the U.S. Senate include: Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin, Al Franken and Sheldon Whitehouse, all Democrats. 

Because student loan reform support seems to be resting strictly with Democrats, the new Republican Congress could prove to be an obstacle to reform. Additionally there are structural impediments to change.

"The bankers have unlimited campaign coffers to lobby Congress for whatever they want, and students have nobody," Applebaum, who now runs Student Debt Crisis, a non-profit dedicated to reforming funding for higher education, said. "Nobody is lobbying Congress on behalf of students…and former students, because 60-percent of all student loans are held by people above 30-years-old."

Despite the long odds though, this is a cause that could gain support because student debt affects so many. As more people tell their stories and express to their representatives that student loan reform is essential to improving their lives and economic contributions, the more likely those representatives are to take action.

"There's 36 million Americans with student loan debt, and it's only getting worse," Applebaum said. "People aren't buying homes, they're not starting businesses, they're not starting families."

Michael Cooper Jr. is a reporter for Campus Progress.

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