Lawmakers urged to tackle soaring student loan debt

WASHINGTON (CN) – Bringing to Congress an issue that has become a prominent fixture of the 2020 Democratic primary, a House panel on Tuesday grappled with how Congress should respond to the $1.5 trillion in student loan debt borrowers have racked up.

With student loan debt rising above 7.5% of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2019, Democrats have made bringing down such debt a key policy focus, especially as the contest for the White House has heated up.

Six candidates have endorsed forgiving some or all outstanding student loan debt, with Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., calling for the total forgiveness of all student loans.

Experts and advocates who testified at Tuesday’s hearing before the House Financial Services Committee said the financial pressure of student loans and the rising cost of education have caused borrowers to put off starting families or buying houses, which can compound into further financial problems later in life.

“This isn’t a bootstrap moment, this isn’t tightening the belt, people are taking on debt because they are going to school and this is the only way they can,” Seth Frotman, executive director at the Student Borrower Protection Center, told the panel.

Tuesday’s hearing focused primarily on the factors that have caused students to rack up so much debt to pay for college, the impacts of that debt and who should be held accountable, though some of the witnesses who testified offered specific policy fixes.

Democrats and the witnesses they invited to the hearing laid most of the blame on student loan servicers, accusing them of misleading or giving bad service to borrowers.

Frotman, who was the student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau until he resigned in protest last year, said people who have student loans have fewer rights than those who hold other types of loans, subjecting them to predatory behavior from servicers and banks.

“It’s a bullseye placed on the back of nearly 45 million Americans who are subjected to predatory tactics from the day they take out their loan until the day they pay it back,” Frotman said.

He said Congress should pass laws, known as a student loan borrower bill of rights, to make sure people who take out student loans enjoy and can enforce the same rights as people who hold other types of loans.

Democrats also pointed a finger at the Trump administration, accusing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Education of abdicating their responsibilities to protect borrowers.

But Republicans traced ballooning student loan balances to a 2010 overhaul of the student loan program that gave the federal government a greater role in lending to students. They said this encouraged people to take out loans they had little hope of ever being able to repay.

“I know everybody wants a bogeyman and the student loan servicers are a convenient bogeyman,” said Congressman Andy Barr, R-Ky. “But guess what: Look in the mirror Congress. Congress created this crisis.”

Jason Delisle, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said confusing terms on student loan agreements and rules set by Congress and the Department of Education can make it seem to borrowers like they are being taken advantage of when the servicers are in fact just doing what the federal government requires.

Delisle, the Republican witness at the hearing, suggested putting a $50,000 cap on the amount of federal student loans people can take out and creating a program through which borrowers pay off their loans by paying a fixed percentage of their income on their taxes.