With 40 million people owing over $1 trillion in student loan debt, N.Y. Sen. Chuck Schumer and other Senate Democrats launched the #InTheRed campaign in conjunction with the Reducing Education Debt (RED) Act, which aims to make college debt free.
The Chronicle participated in a conference call with Sen. Schumer on Feb. 11 to find out more about the initiative. “The bottom line is, the issue of college affordability and student debt affects you, affect your peers and they affect our future [and] the future of the country,” Sen. Schumer said.
According to The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), “Seven in 10 seniors (69 percent) who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2014 had student loan debt, with an average of $28,950 per borrower. Over the last decade – from 2004 to 2014 – the share of graduates with debt rose modestly (from 65 percent to 69 percent) while average debt at graduation rose at more than twice the rate of inflation.”
According to College Scorecard, a service of the U.S. Department of Education, Hofstra seniors graduate with an average of $23,900. The Chronicle conducted a twitter poll that asked Hofstra students how much debt they expect to graduate with. The poll garnered 127 answers, 41 percent of which say they will owe over $50,000, 23 percent say between $20,000 and $50,000, 16 percent say less than $20,000 and 20 percent say they will be debt free.
Sen. Schumer believes that in order for young Americans to be successful, the amount of student debt must dramatically decrease. “Student loan debt has become a burden on the shoulders of millions of young Americans and [it’s] holding back their ability to pursue their passions, live a comfortable lifestyle, or achieve the American dream,” Sen. Schumer said. “College should create a lifetime of opportunities, not a life sentence of debt and financial strain.”
Zachary Brunacini, sophomore biology major, was taken aback by the amount of debt students across the country are burdened with. “Obviously if there’s $1.3 trillion of debt there’s a problem. If that many people owe a significant amount of money than there needs to be some sort of program to help them out to either forgive it, or at least reduce it so it’s more manageable,” he said.
Sen. Schumer explained the multipronged approach that the RED Act is proposing in order to tackle the issue of surmounting college debt.
First, the legislation would allow students to refinance their loans at lower interest rates. “It is amazing that the federal government charges people six, seven, eight, nine percent on student debt, when the interest rates are three percent. The federal government should not be making a profit on the backs of our students, who are the future of America.”
The provision means that people in college currently and those who have already graduated and are still paying their loans off would save thousands of dollars in repayments.
The second part of the legislation would make two years of community college free for incoming college students. “Helping students earn associate degrees, or start the path to a bachelor’s degree, and gain the skills they need to succeed in the work force without having to take on crippling debt,” Sen. Schumer said.
Brunacini thought that this part of the proposal would offer a more practical solution for students from low-income families. “The first two years are usually prerequisites, so for a lot of people, being able to go to a community college for free would help a lot because then they could go on to a university but not already have the debt of a university cost,” he said.
The act will also ensure that an adequate amount of Pell Grant money is available to be awarded to students. Sen. Schumer explained, “The RED Act will ensure Pell Grants will keep pace with rising costs of college by tying the Pell grants to the consumer price index, so every year they’ll go up and that will help.”
Hofstra is no different from most other private universities that are seeing a steady increase in the cost of attendance. Just 10 years ago, for the 2005-06 academic year, the cost of tuition and fees at Hofstra was $23,000 annually according to the University’s archived bulletin. For the 2014-15 academic year, undergraduate students paid $38,900 in tuition and fees according to The National Center for Education Statistics. In this 10-year period, the cost for tuition and fees increased by about 70 percent.
According to Melissa Connolly, vice president of University Relations at Hofstra, it is not uncommon to see a yearly increase in a university’s cost of attendance. “The cost has gone up generally in the three to 4.5 percent range every year and that’s primarily due to the cost of salaries and benefits. Salaries and benefits generally go up every year about that much,” she said.
In response to student concern that President Rabinowitz’ salary is over $1 million, Connolly explained, “The board of trustees goes through a thorough process with an outside consultant, they look at what the salary and benefits for other university presidents are, and he is compensated in line with that evaluation as well as understanding what’s the market and what he brings to the table.”
Ian Budding, freshman journalism major, is understanding of rising costs at an institution like Hofstra. “I can see why it’s risen, because Hofstra has a lot of opportunities for different people and when you get these opportunities, you’ve got to pay a little something, but it’s just crazy to see just how much it’s risen,” he said.
Sen. Schumer said that private institutions have to be responsible for trying to make college more affordable. “What we called for is accountability among the colleges and we would want each of them to come up with a plan – how they’re going to reverse the increases in tuition,” he said. “At Hofstra you get a very good education, but it’s so expensive, and the cost shouldn’t keep going up.”
Although cost of attendance is going up, Connolly said that the University is working to make earning a degree more affordable.
She claims that the scholarships that Hofstra awards go up every year, usually by about 10 percent. “It’s about $100 million in scholarships that the university has given out. Which is more than what the state or federal government gives out in terms of aid to the students. So the university actually gives the biggest chunk of aid,” she said.
She also outlined other ways the University tries to aid students financially. “We’ve done a lot in the last 10 years in terms of adding things like payment plans to make paying for college easier, and interest-free payment plans. Things like that because we recognize that college is an enormous investment and we want to help students make their way through as much as possible while providing a really great experience with small classes, experiential learning, the best facilities we can. It’s a balancing act.”
Sen. Schumer understands the RED Act would come with a price tag, however, the legislation proposes how it would be paid for. “First we introduce the ‘Buffet Rule.’ What the ‘Buffet Rule’ says is if you’re a multimillionaire, you should be paying at least the same rate of tax as your secretary does, and not be able to use loopholes. Second, oil companies get huge tax breaks, we eliminate those.”
The senator is encouraging students to use #InTheRed to pressure their state senators to support the bill.
Budding said, “Imagine how many people are just worrying about the prices of college and even debating whether or not to even go. I think everybody deserves a college education and I think Senator Schumer is right in doing what he needs to do.”