Local Commentary

Delegate Simon’s Richmond Report

simon-mug4webAs we near the end of August, many Falls Church and Virginia families will engage in one of those rites of passage that some of us look forward to and others may dread: packing up their cars and making the road trip to drop off a child at college for the first time.

The trip is full of anxieties for children and parents alike. Will these very young adults make smart decisions about studying, alcohol, drugs, and relationships, with relatively little real adult supervision? Some of us may wonder why we didn’t set more aside for the spiraling increases in the cost of attending college.

Others will, after checking out the dorm, make a trip to the student aid office to beginning taking draws on their student loans, which is how they will pay for it all.

As of 2015, student loan debt topped $1.3 trillion nationally. This includes 1 million Virginians with over $30 billion of student loan debt. To put that in perspective, that’s larger than credit card and auto loan debt. Only mortgage debt is greater, but with student loans, there are no assets securing repayment.

There is growing evidence that the burden of repaying all this debt is weighing down the economy and preventing younger Americans from more fully participating in the economy. This is why I hosted a series of roundtables last fall around the state, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, and worked with advocacy groups to craft student loan debt legislation for this past General Assembly Session.

One thing that became clear during our roundtable discussions was that many student loan borrowers are not adequately counseled on the terms of the loans they are taking out or what their loan payments will be, and what it will take to make those payments, once they graduate. And for those who perhaps don’t finish their degree and, therefore don’t get the expected higher paying job, the numbers are even worse.

In response to these concerns, I co-sponsored legislation with State Senator Janet Howell last Session to create a Student Loan Borrower’s Bill of Rights. Among other things, the legislation would have required some basic consumer protections and required Virginia to license student loan servicers and originators just like similar financial providers.

Finally, we would create an office of the Student Loan Debt Ombudsman with the mission to:

• Receive, review, and attempt to resolve any complaints from student loan borrowers, including attempts to resolve such complaints in collaboration with institutions of higher education, student loan servicers;

• Compile and analyze data on student loan borrower complaints;

• Assist student loan borrowers to understand their rights and responsibilities as a borrower;

• Provide information to the public, state agencies, legislators, and other persons regarding the problems and concerns of student loan borrowers and make recommendations for resolving those problems and concerns;

• Analyze and monitor the development and implementation of federal and state laws and policies relating to student loan borrowers and recommend any changes the Office of the Student Loan Ombudsman deems necessary;

• Establish and maintain a student loan borrower education course that shall include educational presentations and materials regarding student education loans. Topics covered by the program shall include key loan terms, documentation requirements, monthly payment obligations, income-based repayment options, loan forgiveness, and disclosure requirements.

Both my legislation to permit graduates to refinance student loan debt and the Student Loan Bill of Rights legislation received a lot of attention during the committee meetings and were subsequently referred to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Virginia 529, and the Virginia Department of the Treasury for further study. I have since met with Council staff, who are taking the lead on this project, and plan to reintroduce the fine-tuned legislation during the 2017 session.

We can’t break our word to the upcoming generation. We told them if they worked hard, went to school, and got a degree, they were punching their ticket to financial security. Offering lower interest rate refinancing and expanded consumer protections may not solve all the problems of social mobility and income inequality, but it’s something we can do, here in Virginia, to make life better for everyone.

 


Delegate Simon represents the 53rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He may be emailed at [email protected]