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Her plan would link at-risk loan borrowers with income-driven repayment plans.



When Suzanne Bonamici was going to college and law school in the 1970s, she relied partly on loans to pay her way.

“I felt I had a manageable amount of debt that did not take me too long to pay back. That is not what I am hearing today,” said Bonamici, now a U.S. representative from the 1st District congressional seat.

“Too many students have too much debt.”

The Democrat from Beaverton spoke at a forum sponsored by Generation Progress, a youth movement backed by the Center for American Progress, that focused on ways for students to pay off those debts through income-driven plans.

The forum was on the Rock Creek campus of Portland Community College, where Bonamici appeared May 9 with Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Bonamici also sits on the committee.

Bonamici and Republican Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania have teamed up to cosponsor the SIMPLE Act, which aims at reducing defaults by at-risk student loan borrowers by connecting them with income-driven repayment plans. She said students should be able to refinance debt akin to home mortgages.

“We have not made it very easy for people to get into those plans and stay in those plans,” she said.

Bonamici said the proposal also automates the process of updating the income information of borrowers, who now have to verify it annually, creating additional confusion.

An estimated 8 million loans are in default.

“There is bipartisan support, but not for any particular legislation,” Bonamici said, chiefly because there is no consensus on how Congress should pay for it, a requirement under congressional rules.

Congress ended federally guaranteed loans by banks in 2010, although past private loans are still serviced by contractors for the U.S. Department of Education.

“The government should not be profiting on student loan debt,” she said.

Bonamici also said she favors expansion of federal grants based on financial need — also known as Pell Grants — and flexibility for older students, who make up the majority of community college students and often have to balance loan repayments with current family obligations.

Bonamici said she favors expansion of financial counseling so that students will be informed of what they are getting into and what is expected of them after they complete their work.

“I feel students are much more knowledgeable about what they are getting into,” PCC’s Marvin Sandler said. “But there is still a lot of work to be done.”

During the discussion, Bonamici was asked about the prospects for aid to students who were brought by their parents to the United States illegally as young children. Such students are ineligible for federal aid, and also aid in many states such as Oregon, although they can qualify for in-state tuition rates. (California and Washington do have aid programs available.)

Bonamici said any congressional action is unlikely “until we can address comprehensive immigration reform.”

Afterward, Bonamici said, there is value in the higher education forums she has appeared at.

“It’s helpful for me to hear from people who are students, or working with students who have student loan debt, about the specific challenges they face,” she said. “Then I can take their stories and ideas back to Washington, D.C., and work on policy that makes a difference. Too many people are struggling with student loan debt and we need to make college more affordable and accessible.”

Reauthorization of federal spending authority for higher education is pending, however, and Bonamici said that kind of action is unlikely in a post-election session of Congress. She said the legislation is more likely to be taken up by the new Congress elected on Nov. 8.

The education committee chairman, Republican John Kline of Minnesota, is leaving Congress.

“We will have a new chair of the committee,” she said. “I am looking forward to working with whoever that is and hoping we can get a comprehensive bill passed.”

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