December 4, 2013

Saddled by Loans, Graduate Students Cold Call Congress for Help

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By ANIKA SETHY

In an effort to raise awareness about graduate and professional student loan debt, the Cornell Graduate and Professional Student Assembly took part in a nationwide “Call Congress Day “for the GradsHaveDebt2 campaign Wednesday.

According to Nicole Baran grad, a former member of the GPSA executive board, the campaign aims to inform members of Congress that the Budget Control Act of 2011 made graduate students ineligible for subsidized Stafford loans, which are federal low-interest education loans.

In addition to being ineligible for subsidized loans, which Baran said “means that [students] start accumulating debt while [they are] still in graduate school,” due to the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act of 2013, interest rates on graduate student loans could hit 9.5 percent in the next 10 years.

“This is the first year that the interest rates that were being charged to graduate students is actually higher than it is for undergraduates,” she said. “And [9.5 percent] is a really high interest rate. The difference between that [and interest rates right now] is expected to add an extra $200 per month per student on the average loan payment that a typical graduate student is making on their debt.”

Monet Dumas grad, president of the GPSA, said the issue of student loans is one that hits home.

“The average professional student’s debt is over $100,000, so I can relate to that experience. I think we’re just trying to get the message out that graduate students have debt too, not just undergraduate students, and especially professional students,” Dumas said.

Dumas said the campaign is focused on making Congress aware of the consequences of the Budget Control Act and making sure Congress is being “sensitive to our needs as well as undergraduates.’”

Franziska Doerflinger grad, although not personally affected by the changes in graduate student loans because as an international student, said she decided to make calls to members of Congress to support her fellow students.

“I’m not American, so a lot of this doesn’t really apply to me. I never had undergraduate loans. … I thought it was important to know about this. I mean, it’s definitely important for my peers, and I like to raise awareness and to get involved,” she said.

Doerflinger added that, at first, she was nervous about calling members of Congress, but said she soon found that most of the representatives were approachable and had already received a number of calls.

Christine Yao grad, the vice-president for operations, said she thinks the campaign is valuable because of the Budget Control Act’s possible repurcussions. Yao said she was concerned the increase in the debt of Ph.D. students intending to pursue careers in research could funnel more people into industry jobs instead.

According to Baran, who is also the northeast regional chair for NAGPS, Cornell is just one of at least 20 schools participating in the campaign. Yao said she noticed this widespread participation in the campaign during her calls to members of Congress.

“So far, when I’ve been calling in, they’ve been saying, ‘Yes, we’ve been getting a number of calls today,’ so it’s definitely showing that there’s a volume of calls, and they’re starting to register it as a concern,” Yao said.

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