Student Debt Relief Act aims to aid graduate students

Of the $1.3 trillion in U.S. student debt, graduate students owe 40 percent of it on average, said Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia.
MU undergraduate and graduate students and faculty attend the press conference held by Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, on Feb. 1 in the Student Center.

Matt McCune, Graduate Professional Council director of communication, is no stranger to issues of student debt. He and his wife chose to attend community college while working full time just to avoid it. Although they don’t have any student loans, they’re now 36 and 37 years old and still in graduate school.

“If you look at statistics you could say wow you did very well, you don't have very much debt,” McCune said at a press conference Monday. “Well, we sacrificed years of our lives to have that.”

These struggles led him to “nag” Missouri legislators for years to make changes involving student debt.

Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, heard his complaints. Over the last year, Kendrick has had listening sessions on campuses across the district, including MU’s. Through these, he said he has learned about student issues, and student debt, specifically, was one topic that kept coming up.

Wanting to tackle the issue, Kendrick introduced House Bill 2432, or the Student Debt Relief Act, with the help of GPC, Associated Students of the University of Missouri, the Missouri Students Association and Tigers Advancing Political Participation. The bill would provide a refinancing option for graduate students. Kendrick spoke about the bill at the press conference Monday on the main floor of the Student Center.

“Rather than a debt crisis, we have a repayment crisis,” Kendrick said at the conference. “The standard 10-year repayment plan requires borrowers to repay the bulk of their debt when earnings potential is the lowest and job security is the least.”

MU processed about $240 million of student loans just last year, Financial Aid Director Nick Prewett said. Prewett said students will often avoid checking how indebted they are because they have so many student loans. He said it is better to be aware of the debt in order to know how much they will owe monthly.

Sixth-year doctoral student Jesse Kremenak and his fiancee’s combined incomes have not been enough to sustain them through graduate school, so they have taken out student loans. They borrowed a little each year to “make ends meet,” which adds up, Kremenak said.

“The amount of money that we’re paid really gets stretched thin,” Kremenak said. “A lot of times we have to rely upon student loans in order to make up that gap, in order to keep the lights on, keep food on the table, put gas in the tank, make car repairs … It’s pretty darn stressful going through school knowing that you have this large balance kind of looming over your head.”

This issue prompted him to create Grads Have Debt 2, which is part of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. The program, a former GPC committee but now a separate entity, researched foundational data that prompted ideas for change, Kremenak said.

“I decided to found the Grads Have Debt 2 campaign, which was really to address the inequalities in all these federal student loan bills, and to provide a voice for students that, prior to this, didn’t really have a voice,” Kremenak said. “They were drowning in debt and weren't able to get out from under, and didn’t really have a venue to get it out and express what was going on.”

ASUM Legislative Director Steven Chaffin wants to go to graduate school. His goal, he said at the conference, is to reduce inequality in his hometown, St. Louis.

“As Representative Kendrick can surely speak to, helping others often doesn’t come with a big paycheck,” Chaffin said at the conference. “In fact, my student debt actively discourages me from helping others.”

Graduate students owe 40 percent of the $1.3 trillion in U.S. student debt, Kendrick said. On average, graduate students borrow nearly 45 percent more than undergrads, totalling $47 thousand, he said. His bill aims to help make college debt more manageable for graduate students.

Kendrick said the Student Debt Relief Act would:

  • Reduce interest rates and save money
  • Extend the repayment period to 20 years with low cost options up to 30 years or decrease down to 10 years
  • Cap monthly payments based on income

Research shows that 90 percent of those defaulting on their student loans don’t have a degree, and 60 percent didn’t make their first payment, Kendrick said. The bills requires student to have obtained an associate’s degree or higher and make their first payment on the original loan, in order to refinance. If the bill passes, students would not be able to borrow any more than the debt they owe when consolidating and refinancing loans.

Because of these requirements, Kendrick said he considered the bill “a safe bet for Missouri.” He also has confidence that he could gain some Republican support, as student debt is an issue that “transcends party lines.”

“$20,000 in debt, and I feel lucky,” Chaffin said at the conference. “That should be a sign that there’s a problem.”

Edited by Taylor Blatchford |

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