Congress

Members of Congress are rich with student debt

Reauthorization of Higher Education Act could affect repayment, affordability

68 members, or 13 percent of Congress, reported that either they or their family members have student loan debt. (Illustration by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

As lawmakers look to reshape the federal loan process in the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, a cohort knows firsthand the pain of rising college costs — 68 members, or 13 percent of Congress, reported that either they or their family members are mired in student debt.

Collectively, the 44 Democrats and 24 Republicans have higher education liabilities of $2.5 million, according to recent financial disclosures. The median student loan debt is $15,000, while average debt is $37,000.

Eight members have student loan debt in excess of $100,000. And all 68 have obligations of at least $10,000.

Thirteen percent is a slight increase compared to the previous Congress, when Roll Call’s Wealth of Congress project found that one in 10 members held student loans. One-third of Congress’ educational debt comes from new members.

In one case, Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, 49, noted that she and her husband are simultaneously paying for their own debt while taking on joint loans for the college educations of their children. All told, those liabilities exceed $60,000. Escobar graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1991 and with a master’s degree from New York University in 1993.

student-loans-2019_web

Three of the more recent college graduates in Congress are paying for their own education after earning a bachelor’s degree. Freshman Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York all graduated in 2011 and owe more than $15,000 each. Omar, 36, got her degree from North Dakota State University. Finkenauer, 30, graduated from Drake University, and Ocasio-Cortez, 29, graduated from Boston University. 

Seven representatives on the House Education and Labor panel, along with Sen. Christopher S. Murphy on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, all hold student debt. Those committees will be the first to shepherd any legislative overhaul of the federal student loan process.

Murphy said in an interview last week that he was almost done paying back the loans.

“I had a decent-sized student loan debt, and I didn’t have them for undergraduate — I only had them for graduate school,” Murphy said. “I guess I have a little bit more of a window into how enormous your debt can be if you have to pay for four years of expensive undergrad and possibly graduate school as well.” Murphy, 45, has a law degree from the University of Connecticut. 

Murphy’s wife has loans outstanding as well, but he said they kept the loans in part because they were able to refinance the debt at a “decent” interest rate.

“You don’t have to have student loans to understand how crappy it is to have $200,000 in debt,” Murphy said.

ICYMI: The irritating sounds of air horns and Nickelback — Congressional Hits and Misses

Among the Education and Labor group is the current occupant of Murphy’s old House seat, Rep. Jahana Hayes. Named 2016’s National Teacher of the Year, Hayes received an associate degree, bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from 2002 to 2012. She listed more than $115,000 in debt for her education.

“I wanted to be a teacher so badly that I accepted the debt I was incurring even though I knew my salary as a teacher would not yield an equal return on my investment,” Hayes, 46, told Roll Call in a statement. “I’m sure I share this distinction with many other members, and hopefully we can work together to ensure that the skyrocketing cost of higher education does not continue to go unchecked.”

California Rep. Mark Takano, 58, is paying off his 2010 master of fine arts degree from the University of California, Riverside, and sees new policies for student loan repayment with a Democratic majority.

“As a member of Congress with outstanding student loan debt, I am acutely aware of the burdens that high college costs place on students pursuing a degree to advance their careers,” he said in a statement. “We will be introducing legislation to make debt-free college a reality, holding [Education Secretary Betsy DeVos] accountable for allowing for-profit institutions to continue their predatory practices, and ensuring that borrowers have the opportunity to pursue a career in public service and have their student loans forgiven. Higher education should give students a chance to achieve their career goals and propel them into the middle class, and Congress must continue working to make this dream a possible reality for every American.”

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, said his own remaining debt from law school gives him a somewhat unusual perspective among senators.

“I think understanding the fact that I’m 44 years old with years to go on a student loan is the same as millions of Americans across this country,” Gardner said, noting that the average for student loan debt is now in excess of $30,000. Gardner’s own financial disclosures show that he has more than $15,000 in debt. He got his law degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2001.

“We’ve now introduced several different bills on how to make college affordable,” Gardner said. “If you’re coming out of college with a significant student loan, it delays the start of the American Dream, building or purchasing a home. It delays the start of a family. It delays any planning for retirement.”

Gardner introduced legislation last November that would allow employers to make tax-free contributions to help their employees with student loan debt, akin to the employer portion of deferrals for retirement plans like 401(k)s, and it may be the kind of proposal that will seek to catch a ride on the broader higher ed bill.

Roll Call analyzed student debt figures from the latest available financial disclosure reports to the House of Representatives’ Office of the Clerk and the Senate’s Office of Public Records. Members report those values in ranges. For the purpose of this analysis the minimum values were used.

Members with student loan debt

Minimum debt between $90,000 and $120,000

Minimum debt between $60K and $90K

Minimum debt between $30K and $60K

Minimum debt under $30K

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.