Patty in the News

Lower Columbia College student Chance Stewart, 25, used a college loan to turn his life around.

"I'm the first person in my family to graduate high school, let alone attend college," the Castle Rock resident told Sen. Patty Murray Thursday at a roundtable discussion at LCC about legislation to keep student loan rates low.

Stewart, who was homeless twice by the time he was 24, is an honor student on a general transfer degree and is considering a career in music or higher education administration. He has several more years of school ahead of him, and the possibility of interest jumping from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on a federally subsidized Stafford loan "scares me to death," Stewart said.

"Without loans I wouldn't be able to find a place to eat, let alone live," he said.

Murray, who went to college on student loans herself, shares his viewpoint.

"I know what it's like when you finish college and have to pay the loan back," said Murray, who is collecting stories such as Stewart's and taking them to Washington, D.C., to let other senators know the effect on citizens if the rates go up. She supports Senate bill 2051, which would lock rates at 3.4 percent.

The average college student graduates with $25,000 in student loan debt. If Congress doesn't act by July 1, rates on new federally backed loans are set to go to 6.8 percent, she said. Republicans and Democrats both agree interest rates need to be kept low on federally subsidized loans, but they disagree on how to pay for it.

"Student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion, more than the credit card debt," Murray said. "That has a huge impact on the economy, on the ability to buy house or a car."

LCC President Chris Bailey said when he graduated from law school in 1982, he owed $20,000 in student loan debt.

"A friend just got out of law school, and he owes $165,000," Bailey said.

Because most LCC students aren't fresh out of high school — the average age is 33 — they have families and other expenses, Bailey said. Many of them are changing careers.

"The impact is more difficult," he said.

Art major Susan Leaf, 41, of Longview, left her bookkeeping job a year ago to follow her passion.

"I don't want to be paying a student loan back for the rest of my life since I started so late," she said.

Single mom Tracy Larson, 25, of Longview is majoring in mechanical engineering.

"It requires a lot of study every day. Trying to get a job outside school is impossible," Larson said. "I rely heavily on student loans," and she's worried she wouldn't be able to pay for four years of college at 6.8 percent interest.

Murray thanked the panel before leaving for a similar roundtable in Clark County.

"This is the kind of information and passion I need."

- The Daily News