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Congress Can, and Should, Address Student Loan Debt | Commentary

More and more jobs today require at least some type of higher education, whether it’s a four-year degree, an associate’s degree or a certificate from the local community college.

College graduates, on average, make twice as much as individuals without a college degree. Jobs for college graduates often provide better health care and retirement benefits.

But far too often, these students end up with so much debt that it becomes impossible for them to ever pay it back, let alone get ahead.

Two-thirds of college students graduate with an average student loan debt of more than $25,000.

That’s money that could be put toward buying a home, saving for retirement or even establishing a small business. Instead, it’s tied up for years, even decades, in loan and interest payments.

This doesn’t just hurt the graduates who find themselves in a situation where they are unable to make their full monthly loan payment — it’s crippling our economy as a whole.

Much of this debt comes from federal student loans. As the largest student lender, the federal government offers strong consumer protections and flexible repayment options for students and recent college graduates.

However, a growing number of students are relying on private loans from banks and financial institutions to help cover the rising costs of tuition.

Unlike federal loans, private student loans offer few, if any, alternative repayment options — even in times of economic hardship or in the case of death or disability of the borrower.

For years, the banks that hold the $150 billion in private student loan debt have said they were willing to work with borrowers when they are in trouble to help them avoid default. But, they said, the government regulators wouldn’t let them.

When we asked the regulators, they put the blame back on the banks.

Seemingly at an impasse, I joined five other Democratic senators — Tom Harkin of Iowa, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Al Franken of Minnesota, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Sherrod Brown of Ohio — last year in calling on 13 major banks and their government regulators to work together to find a way to help the 850,000 borrowers who are in default on their private student loans.

Wells Fargo — which holds nearly $12 billion in private student loan debt — finally took a modest step in that direction, announcing last month that it would begin working to lower interest rates and extend repayment periods for about 1,000 struggling borrowers.

Discover — which holds $8.3 billion in private student loans — is reportedly considering similar measures for struggling students. I hope they take action.

Other banks should follow their example and provide consumer-friendly alternative repayment plans for borrowers facing economic hardship. And, if their programs truly help borrowers, regulators should work with the banks to help struggling borrowers.

Over the past two years, Democrats have brought forward several proposals to make college more affordable and to make student loan debt more manageable including mine, the Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights, which would require banks to work more effectively with borrowers to avoid default.

I’d be happy for banks to step up voluntarily and address this issue in the absence of legislation, but the programs must be effective for borrowers and not simply a nice press release.

In the meantime, with a new Congress comes a new opportunity to pass meaningful legislation that would help the 1 in 5 families impacted by crushing student loan debt.

We’ll get a chance to see if the new Republican leadership is serious about this issue. I hope America’s youth and their families are paying close attention.

Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., is the Senate majority whip.

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