Kendra Horn was a recent law school graduate in 2004 when she took a job as press secretary to fellow Oklahoma Democrat Brad Carson. Fourteen years before her own election to the House, she made the move from Oklahoma to Washington and almost immediately felt the pressures of a tight budget.
With a pile of student loans and a low starting salary, she tried to keep her expenses to a minimum. She kept her food costs low, scoping out the cheaper places to eat, and paid for groceries on her credit card. But with all of her budgeting, she wasn’t making enough to make payments on her student loans.
“My additional loan payments, based on how much I was making, still qualified me for [forbearance],” she said, referring to an income-based temporary stop to federal loan payments.
Horn’s story is not uncommon among Hill staffers today. With flat wages, rising living costs in D.C. and escalating tuition fees, low-paying staffer jobs have been cost-prohibitive for a workforce made of recent graduates with higher education debt. And staffers and members alike fear that financial burden shuts out otherwise eager talent.
A cross section of Capitol Hill staffers say the congressional-sponsored student loan repayment program can help mitigate costs for those with large educational loans, while spurring recruitment, retention and diversity in the labor pool.
Staffers who commit to serving at least a year on the Hill are eligible for student loan repayment programs offered by the House Chief Administrative Office and the Secretary of the Senate. Members are ineligible for this benefit, but Horn was among the first participants in the program when she was a staffer.
House lawmakers may allocate up to $833 in loan repayment benefits per employee per month. Senate staffers are maxed at $500 per month.
Sean Gogolin, press secretary to Virginia Democratic Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., has used the student loan repayment program since he started on the Hill in 2017. He started the program with about $26,000 in debt and has roughly $8,500 left from a four-year undergraduate degree.
“I definitely saw it as an added benefit to working in a congressional office. If one is lucky enough to receive the maximum amount of benefits, Capitol Hill actually has a nice program compared to a lot of other places — which is certainly an added incentive to stay where you are,” he told CQ Roll Call.
As the repayment program has grown, congressional workers say it provides an opportunity for staffers trying to manage the cost of education while embarking on a Capitol Hill career. The House CAO estimates that offices spent $14 million for repaying student loans of 2,505 employees in fiscal 2018.
One senior Democratic staffer who began in the early 2010s was new to working in D.C. and needed a sweetener to keep the bills down. “The only way I was able to take a job on the Hill was because of this program,” said the aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “If they didn’t have that program, there’d be a mass exodus in this place.”
Sean Brady, deputy chief of staff and legislative director to Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, does not take part in the program but noted that student loan repayment is beneficial both for people looking to get a job on the Hill and staffers who want to stay in their current roles.
“For some entry level positions, standard salary is around $30,000. When someone can get up to $10,000 through a student loan repayment program, that’s a huge chunk,” he said. “It’s a good retention tool, and it incentivizes people for keeping [staffers] on the Hill.”
Benefit amounts are capped for staffers in both chambers: $60,000 for the House and $40,000 for the Senate.
While staffer education levels can vary, some congressional jobs require advanced degrees — and that can mean staffers carrying a lot of debt. “[You have] pretty wide-ranging backgrounds and diverse college experiences, people with significant debts across all corners of the country,” Brady said.
The student loan repayment program can also help facilitate more diversity in the congressional workforce.
“It really does help with students of color, who have to take on more debt,” said an Asian American Democratic aide, who also requested anonymity to speak frankly.
He took a pay cut to come to the Hill, but the loan repayment benefit was worth the lower salary. He owed $90,000 from a bachelor’s and master’s degree and got it down to under $80,000 within a year.
Horn sees the program as a way to attract people who would normally view taking a job on the Hill as cost-prohibitive.
“We shouldn’t just make it a place for people who don’t have to worry about student loan debt or who don’t have to worry about paying their bills,” she said.