Addressing Student Debt: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard Message for AAUW Hawaii

Below is a transcript of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's message for the American Association of University Women (AAUW)- Hawai'i Chapter's Event: "Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans" 

Aloha and thank you all for inviting me to speak with you today as you explore challenges and opportunities to address our nation’s crippling student debt crisis.

As tuitions are rising, college students around the country are becoming more and more dependent on the use of loans to help pay for their higher education, as a result, student debt is becoming more distressing than ever. Student debt now actually exceeds credit card debt in our country, and the pressure of student loan debt on our graduates and our economy has grown far too high to ignore any longer.

44 million Americans now owe over 1.4 trillion dollars in unpaid student loans, and the average borrower holds anywhere from 33 to 37 thousand dollars in debt when they graduate. At least 11 percent of these borrowers have no way of staying current with their payments, and they fall very quickly into deep delinquency.

Now we, in Hawai’i, have not been immune to the harmful consequences of this mounting debt crisis. Nearly half of all Hawai’i graduates hold some form of student debt, and the average debt per borrower sits at a steep 25 thousand dollars.

Now, although Hawai’i remains at just two-thirds the national average for student debt, this number is on the rise.  State funding for the University of Hawai’i has fallen, and the tuition rate at all of our major local colleges and universities has far exceeded the inflation rate.

In a study of UH Manoa students, 10 percent said that they couldn’t afford to attend college at all if they didn’t have the help of their financial aid and loans, but then they found themselves struggling to afford their basic, necessary monthly loan payments. This is unacceptable.

Since I’ve been in Congress, I’ve supported legislation to help alleviate the burden of student loans on our students and begin to find a solution to this crisis. I helped to launch the Congressional Future Caucus my first year in Congress which is focused on bringing millennial leaders from both sides of the aisle together, to address the challenges of our generation. We introduced the Pathways to Affordable Education Act in my first term, aimed at safeguarding Pell Grants through increased funding and expanding eligibility to increase access for low-income students. I’ve also supported bills like the HELP for Students and Parents Act which would give tax credits to businesses that assist in paying off the student loans of their employees, taking much off of their monthly payment burden off of their backs of these working graduates.

Now, this year I’ve supported legislation like the College for All Act, which would eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities for families that make up to $125,000 a year, and it would make community college tuition fee-free for everyone-- something that’s already practice in countries like Germany, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. It would also help us to dramatically reduce crushing student loan debt for both our students and their parents by cutting all student loan interest rates for new borrowers in half; enabling existing borrowers to refinance their loans based on the interest rates available to new borrowers – less than 2 percent for federal loans made to undergraduates; and preventing the federal government from profiting off of the student loan program. I’ve also helped introduce legislation that was recently signed into law that would extend and expand higher education benefits for our veteran in the Forever GI Bill. It would also- there is other legislation that I have supported to assist refugees and people who are seeking asylum to help them get in state tuition rates, and open the door for new opportunities to them.

We can also do more to improve financial literacy rates among high school and college students. Now, according to a study conducted by the Word Bank, Standard & Poor’s, and the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center, the United States ranks fourteenth in the world in financial literacy, with millennials scoring at significantly lower rates than older generations.  I’m continuing to work with my colleagues in Congress to find creative solutions to address this issue.

The AAUW has been one of the strongest voices in this fight against mounting student debt. Mahalo for inviting me to join you today and share in this ongoing discussion, and most importantly mahalo nui’ loa for all the work that you do to ensure the financial equity, security, and stability of our university students. I look forward to hearing the ideas that come out of your  panel discussions today, and working with you as we together make progress on this crisis facing our nation’s students. Mahalo.

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