Alleviating student-loan debt

Debt-driven angst caps the generalized anxiety of finals week. Oh, and marathon cramming.

Thankfully, a confluence of events may relieve a bit of student-loan stress, a burden that clamps on like an ankle monitor and doesn’t unhitch until you’re a wizened soul in life’s twilight (something to stew over during a computer science exam.)

On Monday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that will expand a program tamping down student-loan payments to 10 percent of a borrower’s monthly income.

“We believe that in America, no hardworking young person should be priced out of a higher education,” the president said.

A few hours later and 3,000 miles west of D.C., a group of students, faculty and community leaders gathered at the University of Washington to mark the success of the Washington Opportunity Scholarship, an antidote to the pricing-out conundrum. Thanks to the leadership of Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp, Republican State Sen. Andy Hill and many others, the scholarship amount has been boosted to $22,500 over five years.

The WSOS benefits low- and middle-income students pursuing high-demand STEM degrees. According to Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith, it exists nowhere else in the country, private money with a public match (Boeing and Microsoft were the lead gifters in 2011, pledging $50 million total). Hill and Rep. Ross Hunter, who also attended, illustrate the import-the-talent dynamic. A generation ago, both were recruited from out of state to work at Microsoft.

WSOS board member Jerry Grinstein said that the scholarship addresses two issues in play today — income inequality and student debt. It’s a sentiment echoed by Provost Ana Mari Cauce and other UW honchos. The WSOS has an impact.

Last week, Sen. Patty Murray convened a budget committee hearing to examine how student loans affect borrowers and the broader economy.

“More young people than ever before are dealing with more student debt than ever before,” Murray said in her opening statement. “And that can have lasting consequences.”

Murray also joined with colleagues to underline the ways student-loan debt disproportionately hurts women, driven by the gender-wage gap.

Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell, who hosted a group of UW students Sunday, are co-sponsors of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s student-debt bill, S.2432, which allows borrowers to refinance their loans for as low as 3.86 percent without a refinancing fee.

This week’s vote on the Warren bill will signal how serious Congress is in making whole the promise of higher ed for all Americans.

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