Female senators tie college loan push to equal pay

Elizabeth Warren continued to press hard for a bill that would allow student borrowers to refinance their loans like a mortgage or car payment.
By Gabrielle Levy  |  June 4, 2014 at 6:14 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 4 (UPI) -- The Senate's female Democrats drew a straight line connecting two of the issues the party hopes to make the centerpiece of their midterm strategy: equal pay and student loans.

At a trio of events Wednesday, senators touted legislation that would allow student borrowers to refinance their loans to last year's rate for new loans. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the bill's sponsor, positioned the measure as key to reducing a drag on the national economy caused by the $1.2 trillion in student debt held by Americans.

"It is a drag on our economy," Warren said. "It's harder for young people to buy homes, to start businesses, and to begin their economic lives."

Warren, flanked by fellow Democrats Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who sponsored the equal pay legislation blocked by Republicans last month, Dianne Feinstein of California, Patty Murray of Washington, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Maisie Hirono of Hawaii, called the combination of soaring student loans and paycheck inequality a "one-two punch for women."

Although the number varies depending on how it is measured, most studies find women earn between 15 and 33 cents less than men when equally qualified to do the same work. The number for college-educated women, the senators said, is $0.82.

"Young women are working hard to build an economic future for themselves," she said. "Right now, they face an extra tax."

The Banking on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act would allow student borrowers to refinance their loans to 3.86 percent interest -- the level matching the level set by Congress last year for new borrowers and would be paid for by enacting the so-called Buffett Rule that eliminates a tax loophole allowing millionaires to pay low tax rates.

"Young women are hit by a double whammy by ever-increasingly high student debt," Mikulski said. "They deserve a fair shot at higher education they can afford."

Research has showed that, despite the continued value of holding a college degree, the rising costs have weighed increasingly heavily on America's young people. Rohit Chopra, the student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, testified before the Budget Committee Wednesday that multiple studies have found student debt has kept an entire generation from buying homes, starting businesses and saving for retirement.

Richard Vedder, the director for the Center of College Affordability and Productivity, argued the problem was not mounting debt -- at least not directly. Vedder, who was invited by the ranking member to testify, said the student loan programs have caused college tuitions to skyrocket beyond the pace of inflation as schools happily collect federal dollars to build expensive facilities and court donors.

"Without massive federal aid programs, I doubt we would have so many million dollar university presidents," Vedder testified, arguing the entire student loan program should be dismantled.

Stabenow said Vedder -- and by extension, Republicans -- had the whole thing backwards. Most students don't have the option to ask their parents to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for tuition, and rely solely on loans and other aid to afford a college education.

"This is a question about values," Warren said. "As a country, do we invest in the millionaires and billionaires who have made it? Or do we invest in the young people?"

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