By Joe LoTemplio
Democratic Congressional candidate Aaron Woolf says crushing-college-loan debt hampers not only individuals trying to make their way in the world, but could lead to financial meltdown.
"The first thing we need to do is get these loans under control," he said at a news conference at SUNY Plattsburgh on Friday.
"Not only because it's an important investment in our future, but because of the looming economic crisis. If these loans start defaulting in a major way, we've seen the way cascading default can lead to economic catastrophe.
"This is something we have to arrest right now."
Woolf said the average American undergraduate faces a $30,000 debt for student loans, and nationwide it is more than $1.2 trillion.
"That's more than credit-card debt, that's more than auto-loan debt and second only to mortgage debt," he said.
The high debt is felt in many ways, Woolf said, and it needs to be curtailed.
"Excessive student loan debt prevents our young people from starting families, it forestalls home purchases, it makes investing in small business startups less likely," he said.
"It diverts retirement savings, and it limits opportunities for economic expansion in rural communities."
Woolf was joined by students who are dealing with their own debt and members of the faculty union at SUNY Plattsburgh, which endorsed him.
Patrick Nelson, a 25-year old graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from Stillwater in the southern portion of the 12-county district, said he and his parents owe about $130,000 in loans. He lives with them; in fact, he said, they had to take out a second mortgage to help make the payments.
Nelson said that Woolf's main opponent, Republican Elise Stefanik, 30, has not offered any solutions to higher-education debt.
"I believe Elise Stefanik's avoidance of this issue proves she is not only out of touch with America, but also her own generation," Nelson said.
'HARD TO MANAGE'
Emily Dominy, who described herself as an adult student, said she started college at SUNY Plattsburgh 10 years ago but had to stop when her funding ran out.
"I had to leave school and get a full-time and a part-time job just to survive," she said.
Now, with her husband facing about $180,000 in student-loan debt, with some interest rates as high as 15 percent, Dominy said it is hard to manage.
Karen Volkman, president of United University Professions at SUNY Plattsburgh, said too much debt will keep many students from getting an education.
"They will become disenfranchised," she said.
'ELIMINATE OIL SUBSIDIES'
Woolf said in order to deal with the problem he would move to raise the maximum amount of Pell Grant funding an individual can get from $5,500 to $11,000.
He could do this by eliminating subsidies for "Big Oil" companies, he said.
He would also support the Know Before You Owe Act that calls for private student-loan lenders to make contracts easier to understand.
Woolf said student-loan contracts are often like credit-card contracts, and students wind up paying more in later years of the loan, unaware of some complicated clauses in their deals.
He also said he would make sure students can refinance their loans at lower rates.
COMMONSENSE RATE CAPS
Woolf said he is not surprised that Stefanik, a Harvard graduate, has said nothing about the issue of high student loans -- just like the Republican leadership in Washington, D.C., that she has associated herself with.
"At a campaign stop on May 16, she said she was preparing a student-loan reform proposal that she would release after the primary (June 24)," Woolf said.
"Now, more than three months later, nothing. The truth is my opponent has no plan to make college more affordable."
Stefanik's camp said she has been talking about fixing the problem of the high cost of student loans.
"Before Aaron Woolf was even registered to vote in this district, Elise was visiting directly with students at colleges like SUNY Canton, SUNY Plattsburgh and others, talking about new ways to make loans more affordable and about expanding economic opportunities once they graduate," campaign spokesman Lenny Alcivar said in a statement.
"Elise believes student loan reforms must be addressed in a bipartisan fashion, and she looks forward to working with President Obama to help develop commonsense rate caps.
"Most important, Elise knows the greatest way to make college more affordable for young people is to enact policies that expand economic growth, and that brings good paying jobs back to the North Country."
'MAKE SUNY SCHOOLS FREE'
Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello said he agrees with Woolf's ideas to fix the high-debt problem.
"But I would take it a step further," he told the Press-Republican.
"Public money was used to create the SUNY system, so why do our kids have to pay for higher education at all?" he said.
"Instead of giving oil subsidies, why not give to our children's future."
Funiciello said private colleges can charge what they want, but public institutions should be much more affordable.
"My campaign is about how we need to stop taking money from the working people, and higher education is part of that," he said.