By Jennifer O’Mara
Student debt can destroy credit, delay marriage and children, make buying a home impossible, and turn hopes of career success and financial stability into a nightmare of struggling for decades just to catch up.
It can become a vicious cycle that spills across generations: Some people in low- or modest-paying jobs are still paying off college loans even as their children rack up similar debts.
And since the federal government can garnish wages, including Social Security, to collect on student loans, growing numbers of senior citizens are finding their Social Security payments garnished for loan repayment.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is ground zero for this growing problem. Pennsylvanians carry more student loan debt per person than in any other state in the nation; nearly 2 million residents of our state owe on student loans, with an average debt of $36,000. After mortgage loans, college and other postsecondary debt is now the largest source of consumer household borrowing.
As a first-generation college student, I’m personally aware of what it’s like to leave college already saddled with significant debt. But the mission of relieving student debt goes beyond personal for me. Hardly a day goes by without me hearing from a student or family in Delaware County about how much strain student debt is putting on them and their budget — or how much they worry about the impact of future debt even before a student gets to college.
We must do something to diminish the impact of the student debt crisis. It is already curtailing the economic prospects of an entire generation, causing delays in achieving career goals and forcing millions of young adults to forego making charity donations and saving for retirement.
The causes are myriad: from skyrocketing tuition, fees and other higher education costs to student loan servicing companies that steer families into costly loans, fail to provide the forgiveness borrowers are legally entitled to, and otherwise provide poor customer service.
Here in Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro has already sued one of the largest loan servicers, Navient, for its practices. Attorneys general in other states have filed similar lawsuits against other providers.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly must join the fight.
That’s why I’ve organized a bipartisan legislative Student Debt Caucus in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. This group of legislators will work together to learn more about the crisis and what is causing it and to develop solutions that respond to the needs of students and their families drowning in student debt. Our caucus held its initial meeting recently.
We’ll examine problems caused by negligent loan servicers and by the colleges and universities themselves.
And we’ll advocate for attacking head-on in state budgets the current insufficient level of financial support for our state-owned and state-related universities.
State funding for higher education in Pennsylvania has not kept pace with the rising cost of tuition. Per-student funding for public higher education in the Keystone State fell more than 30 percent from 2008 to 2017, while the cost of tuition at public universities in the state has risen 22.5 percent over the same time period.
Pennsylvania is still funding these institutions like it’s 1999 instead of almost 2020.
While other states are making sure their public universities remain the affordable higher-education option for state residents they were always meant to be, here in Pennsylvania, students are losing ground. Among the nation’s publicly supported universities, students who graduate from Penn State, Temple and Lincoln hold some of the highest debt in the nation.
Affordable access to higher education and career training is key to the future of our state’s workforce and Pennsylvania’s economy. The student debt crisis is forcing many Pennsylvanians to put their lives on hold while they try to figure out how to pay off the debt they had to acquire to pursue career success and their piece of the American Dream.
It’s time to throw a lifeline to students and families sinking under a sea of student debt. That is the mission of the Pennsylvania House Student Debt Caucus.
State Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, a Democrat, represents the Delaware County-based 165th House District. She writes from Harrisburg.