BRISTOL, R.I. – With federal student loan interest rates set to double on July 1, U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.) held a news conference at Roger Williams University this morning to call for bipartisan support of developing legislation that will stabilize interest rates and develop a long-term strategy to address college affordability and a healthy American economy.
“The reality is that young people today are graduating with enormous debt,” Reed said to a packed room of students, staff and faculty. “It is inhibiting their ability to do what they want to do; it’s inhibiting their ability to participate in the economy. It’s something that is not only affecting us from an educational standpoint, but also from a macroeconomic standpoint.”
Faculty Senate President June Speakman, a professor of political science, echoed the Senator’s sentiments in her remarks, pointing to the value of diversity – including economic diversity – in the classroom. Today’s students are being railroaded in their decision-making, forced to choose higher income careers in lieu of their passions due to increasing student loan debt, she said. Critical public service careers – teaching, nursing, social work, civil service – suffer as a result.
“It’s gut-wrenching to hear students make decisions in my office about changing their major to something that will generate more income when they leave because of the debt they are going to face,” Speakman said.
Roger Williams University President Donald Farish introduced Senator Reed, citing the University’s commitment to Affordable Excellence as a fundamental first step in addressing how colleges increase access and decrease cost, without compromising the rigor of education provided. The economy of the country is at stake, he said, and finding a solution is up to everyone involved – including the federal government.
“What this country does not need is more universities for the one percent,” Farish stated. “We need to open the doors of access more broadly, to more people, and make it more affordable.”
Taking the podium, Reed was quick to acknowledge that Congress is approaching a precarious deadline: without action over the next two months, the interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans – a federal program providing need-based financial aid to 45,000 students in Rhode Island and millions nationwide – will increase from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, yielding a large increase in cost over the life of the loans.
“What we’d like to be able to do in the longer-term is have rates that reflect the markets, but also prevent a surge in rates so that students and families don’t get trapped in a high-interest rate environment,” Reed said. “We all understand that we have to have the best-trained students to be competitive in this very challenging and dynamic world. And that’s why education is important. It has to be affordable – we want it to be affordable.”
Reed urged students to contact their senators and use social media to spread the message, telling them to use their voices and speak loudly to advocate for stable interest rates and a long-term solution that will help the economy, assist American families and ensure that all Americans get a fair shot at higher education.
Two RWU seniors, Bre’Anna Metts-Nixon and Adam Semple, shared their perspectives on how the student loan debt crisis affects them and their post-graduation opportunities.
Metts-Nixon, a first-generation college student and Intercultural Leadership Ambassador at the University, relied on an array of scholarships and loans (including Stafford loans) to finance her communication and music degree. An involved campus and community leader, her goal is to attend law school and address issues of diversity in the music industry. With $30,000 of student loan debt to be repaid after she graduates this month, Metts-Nixon harbors doubt that law school will be achievable.
“Quite frankly, figuring out how to cover these costs myself scares me, especially given the challenge of finding a well-paying job in our current economy,” she said. “If student loan interest rates double this summer, I fear my dream of becoming a lawyer will not happen. As Congress decides the future of student loans, I hope they keep in mind small families like mine that struggle every day to make ends meet.”
Semple, who said he will graduate with three majors “and a lot of debt,” lamented the idea that today’s students have been raised to expect a mountain of student loans as a rite of passage.
“We’re raised to think that this massive amount of debt is normal and it’s good and everyone has it – and not only that it’s normal but that you need it to succeed,” he said. “That’s just not the truth.”
After a year abroad in Australia, Semple said he believes that American colleges and universities need to look to the rest of the world for ideas when it comes to increasing accessibility and decreasing cost.
“Promoting education means finding ways to make it easier to go to school, simple as that,” Semple said. “Education should not be a burden on Americans, especially when we are in our most fragile fiscal state. It should be an advantage that helps ensure a better future.”
Senator Reed, who was awarded an honorary degree in 2010 and cited his status as an “honorary alumnus,” of Roger Williams University, concluded his visit by attending Speakman’s Intro to American Politics class, followed by an open session with the campus community and a private meeting with the RWU College Democrats.