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Johnson hosts college affordability roundtable discussion


WASHINGTON D.C. (KELO-AM) U.S. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) today hosted a roundtable discussion regarding growing student loan debt and proposals to make post-secondary education more affordable.

“College represents one of the surest paths to the middle class, but it has become increasingly difficult to afford,” Johnson said. “Although South Dakota has done better than most states at keeping college costs down, 78% of our students must take out loans. This is higher than in any other state.  I have heard from hundreds of South Dakotans about their difficulty making ends meet, and I will push for reforms that make college more affordable, help borrowers better manage their debt, and make sure students get the best bang for their buck.”

“Last month, I voted for the Fair Shot College Affordability Act, which would help an estimated 81,000 borrowers in South Dakota refinance their loans. Although a filibuster blocked the bill, I will continue working to advance legislation to make college more affordable.”

The roundtable participants included: Dr. Rob Oliver (President of Augustana College), Dr. Jack Warner (SD Board of Regents Executive Director and CEO), Rachelle Norberg (SD Student Federation Legislative Director), Brenda Murtha (Director of Financial Aid, Augustana College and a member of the SD Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators), Brooke Schomp (Chiropractor and Owner of Inspire Chiropractic), Rocky Burkett (NSU Upward Bound Director and SD ASPIRE President), Steve O’Brien (Incoming Vice President of the South Dakota Education Association and a Speech and Language Teacher at Watertown High School), and Tyler Ramsbey (Business Administration Student at Southeast Technical Institute).      

In June, the Senate considered legislation to allow federal student loan borrowers to refinance their loans down to the rates offered to new borrowers in the 2013-2014 school year under the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act. The bill would also allow private student loan borrowers in good standing to refinance their loans.  The U.S. Department of Education estimated that roughly 25 million borrowers, including 81,000 South Dakotans, would be able to refinance under the legislation.  Unfortunately, the measure did not receive the required 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and was prevented from moving forward.   

Nationwide, student loan debt now exceeds $1.2 trillion, surpassing credit card debt.  It is the largest consumer debt market after mortgages. South Dakota has the highest percentage of students graduating with debt in the entire country. However, the average debt balance for South Dakota students is $25,121, which puts South Dakota roughly in the middle compared to other states for average debt balances.

The Senate Banking Committee has jurisdiction over student loans made by private lenders. As Chairman of the Banking Committee, Senator Johnson will work to consider actions that can be taken to address both existing and future student loan debt. Efforts are currently underway in Congress to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which expires at the end of the year. Senator Johnson will share the insight he received at today’s roundtable with his Senate colleagues as they work to make post-secondary education accessible and affordable to any student who qualifies to attend.   

In April, Senator Johnson, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wrote to his colleagues on the committee in support of the federal Pell Grant that helps low-income students pay for post-secondary education, including approximately 30,000 students in South Dakota during the 2013-2014 school year. Senator Johnson also pushed for strong and continued funding for the TRIO Program that supports more than 2,200 low-income and first-generation college students in South Dakota pursue their college dreams. In addition, he urged his colleagues to provide continued federal funding for career and technical education that supports career training at high schools and the four technical institutes in South Dakota. As the Fiscal Year 2015 appropriations process moves forward, Senator Johnson will continue to be a strong supporter of federal investments in education.