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Students seek relief from college loans

By Sterling Giles

Capital News Service

Students from colleges and universities across Virginia protested at Capital Square recently, seeking help with college loans. A bipartisan trio of lawmakers touted their plans to address the issue.

More than 60 members of the Virginia Student Power Network (VSPN) convened at Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Richmond to discuss their strategies. The VSPN was lobbying for:

• House Bill 400 and Senate Bill 52, which would allow borrowers to refinance their student loans with lower interest rates.

• HB 401 and SB 604, which would create a Borrower’s Bill of Rights for student loans and a Student Loan Navigator with authoritative information about repayment options.

During the rally, the students shared stories of battling college debt. Then they marched to the General Assembly Building to talk to legislators.

During the march, Laura Freeman, a student from George Mason University, said college debt can be overwhelming.

“I understand that I have to pay back my debt and that I owe, and I’m (a) slave until I do — but the next Proverb says that ‘those who sow injustice will reap calamity,’” Freeman said. She said students are “having to be slaves to unreasonably high debt and the stress that comes with it.”

During meetings with legislators, the student protesters expressed urgency while lawmakers urged patience.

Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, said she supports the legislation sought by students. But with Republicans controlling both the House and Senate, the bills likely will be amended if they get through the legislative process.

“You have the Cowboys and Redskins — the Cowboys wear blue, and the Redskins wear red. There isn’t a playing field where you have the same number of players. We are handicapped — we are really handicapped,” Dance said.

During a debriefing after the demonstration, several protesters said they felt legislators were unreceptive to their proposals.

“It seems like the system validates the fact that they made it through — so therefore everyone else has to make it through. But what sense does that make? We want to help people in the future to not have to go through what they had to go through,” Freeman said.

Members of the Virginia Student Power Network saw signs of encouragement, too. The turnout for the demonstration was far greater than in previous years. Ibby Han, a student from the University of Virginia, said the VSPN must continue pushing ahead.

“Our work doesn’t just end with the General Assembly. This is 24/7, 365 days a year. So, we are looking to organize back on our campuses, keeping our Board of Visitors accountable — as well as the state,” Han said.

On Tuesday, Dels. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, and Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, and Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, held a press conference to underscore the problems posed by student debt. In Virginia, more than one million borrowers owe more than $30 billion in student loans, officials said.

Howell, who has filed SB 52 and SB 604, said, “Common sense reforms like allowing borrowers to refinance their loans and obtain access to a knowledgeable navigator will help Virginia’s one million student loan borrowers pay back their loans and get their financial feet under them.”