Uncle Sam Helps Out With Student Loan Debt

Kansas City – Mallory Anthony laughs as she describes herself as “the face of student loan debt in America.”

But the 26-year-old woman who owes about $32,000 really doesn't think her struggle is funny at all.

“I get by on the bare minimum health and car insurance. I'm frugal with my grocery shopping, and I try not to eat out much.”

So Anthony was delighted to learn that President Barack Obama is accelerating a plan that might knock hundreds of dollars from the check she writes each month to her lenders.

The changes could affect as many as 1.6 million Americans.

First, the cap on monthly loan payments will be lowered to 10 percent of a student's discretionary income – down from the 15 percent set in a law passed last year.

Second, under the “Pay as You Earn” plan, the break begins in January, instead of 2014.

Unsure how she might be affected, Anthony hopes for some relief.

Anthony remembers “the overwhelming fear” felt six months after her 2007 college graduation when it was time to pay for school and she didn't have the money.

“I've had to ask my family for assistance paying them back,” she said, and deferred some payments.

Working full time in admissions at Rockhurst University as well as some evenings and weekends as a nanny, she's taking classes toward a master's degree at Webster University.

That means yet more loans.

“I realize I will be the rest of my life paying for college,” Anthony said. “But hopefully getting a master's degree will lead to more money so I can pay.”

Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council, said that Obama's use of his executive authority came “because we know the frustration of crushing loan burdens.”

One of the complaints by the discontented youth at the Occupy Wall Street protests across the nation is the high cost of a college education, the debts incurred by students and parents and the lack of jobs after graduation.

The tweaks in the federal policy come at the same time as The College Board's report that higher education tuitions have risen far faster than inflation over the last decade.

Tuition at public four-year schools rose an average 8.3 percent over last year.

Which borrowers are eligible for the program will be set by income, family size and state of residence. The impact is made clear by a White House fact sheet:

For an office worker with $60,000 in outstanding student loans and who earned $45,000 a year, the standard repayment rate has been $690 monthly.

The 15 percent cap would have reduced her check to $358.

But the newest plan knocks it down further to $239 a month.

Also, now, if a borrower repays government loans for 20 years, instead of the old time-frame of 25, any remaining balance can be forgiven.

For public service workers, it's just 10 years of on-time repayment before forgiveness.

“I commend President Obama for taking these important steps to provide relief to Americans with student loans who face mounting debt and a very tough job market,” Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said.

“These are exactly the types of smart and targeted policy initiatives our country needs right now to strengthen the economy,” he said.

Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, who heads the House Education and Workforce Committee, told National Public Radio he thought it “a little bit disingenuous for the president to call the student loan consolidation program a jobs program.”

He said the plan “doesn't create a single job, strengthen our economy, or promote fiscal responsibility,” but instead “would encourage more borrowing across the board.”

Neither the original loan payback plan nor the changes, announced Wednesday, apply to private loans issued by banks and other lenders that are not government guaranteed.

The plan also allows some students to consolidate government and private loans and make one monthly payment to the federal program. For details on the income-based repayment plan and who qualifies go to https://studentaid.ed.gov.

Aaron McNally's wife was so excited Wednesday that she woke him with the news. Her husband, a manager at a grocery store in Independence, graduated in 2009 from the University of Northern Iowa with a master's degree in English and a student debt of more than $50,000.

McNally rose from his pillow listening to his wife read the details. He, too, has adjusted his life to minimize the drain from monthly loan payments, including deferring some “to push the problem onto the back burner for a little while.”

His wife takes their car, so McNally rides the bus from his downtown Kansas City apartment to and from his job in eastern Jackson County.

“It obviously would mean I can honor my debt without being impoverished,” said McNally, who hopes he qualifies for the changes.

“I think this new plan is definitely the right move for the country,” he said. “I don't think it's right for us to punish people who get a higher education. I know I'm over-educated for my job, but I probably do my job better because of my education. I think it is still good to be educated.”

The changes also should lower the national student loan default rate, which jumped by 1 percent last year, said Nancy Merz, financial aid chief at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“We watch default rates; all the colleges do,” she said. “When students don't repay, their loan goes into default, and if a college's default rate gets too high, then it's sanctioned by the federal government.

“As goes the economy so goes the default rate,” Merz said. “When people don't have jobs, the first thing to go is the student loan payments. They are going to make their house payment and put food on the table first.”

© 2011 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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