Senate Democrats push for tuition-free college, student loan refinancing

By Amy R. Connolly  |  Jan. 26, 2016 at 1:40 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Senate Democrats vowed to push through legislation attacking rising college costs and staggering student loan debt despite expected backlash from Republicans, aligning themselves with the party's presidential contenders.

Lawmakers unveiled the Reducing Educational Debt Act, which, if passed, would make two years of community college tuition-free, allow federal and private student loan borrowers to refinance at a lower rate, and keep Pell grants in pace with rising school costs. It brings together legislation previously championed by Senate Democrats in the past several years.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Chuck Schumer of New York said it would be helpful to have an across-the-aisle accord, but it's not essential.

"We want to work with our colleagues ... in a bipartisan way," Schumer said in announcing the legislative package, part of the #InTheRed campaign. "But this is such an important issue that's so vital to the future of all of Americans and our future, that we're going to try to get this done any way we can. We prefer Republicans join us and do this in a bipartisan way, but we will not stop if they don't."

Under the RED Act, two years of community college will be tuition free and fully transferable to in-state four-year institutions or occupational training, a benefit that could help an estimated nine million students. The bill would provide a federal match of $3 for every state dollar invested to waive community college fees and fees for eligible students before other financial aid is applied. It also establishes a new grant program for historically black and minority institutions

Also, the legislation calls for public and private student loan borrowers to be able to refinance their debt at a lower rate and indexing future Pell Grant awards based on inflation to keep pace with the Consumer Price Index.

In announcing the RED Act, lawmakers echoed the calls from Democratic presidential candidates seeking the same. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have each introduced plans to reduce or eliminate tuition for the first two years of college.

"With over a third of borrowers delinquent on their loans by 90 days or more, student loan debt now exceeds $1.2 trillion. This level of college debt is not sustainable," Schatz said. "This is not just a student issue, it is a family issue that affects parents and grandparents who often times help pay those bills. We can't continue to allow students and their families to be saddled with crushing debt simply for wanting to earn a higher education."

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