Students push for debt forgiveness

A national petition urges Obama to forgive loans to stimulate the economy.
September 29, 2011

Alexis Reineke  graduated from the University of Minnesota in December 2008 with a communications degree — and $35,000 in debt.

Last week, she signed a petition that now has more than 424,000 signatures, each urging President Barack Obama to forgive student debt to stimulate the economy.

After graduation, Reineke traveled some and worked as a waitress before she got an hourly-paid job at Aerotek, a staffing firm in Bloomington.

“It’s not that big-salary job that I’d hoped for coming out of college,” she said, but it’s enough to make minimum monthly payments of about $260 on her student loans.

There’s about $945 billion in student loan debt in America, according to FinAid.org, a student financial aid information website. It’s on track to exceed $1 trillion by the end of the year, said Robert Applebaum, who started the petition.

The average Twin Cities university undergraduate finishes school with $ 29,949 in debt, according to 2009-10 data from the Office of Institutional Research.

Applebaum added that much of that total isn’t loans, but compounded interest and fees that students have accrued.

“The balance that people carry on student debt is not really reflective of what they borrowed,” Applebaum said.

He can personally vouch for that.

Nearly 20 years ago, Applebaum finished his undergraduate degree at the State University of New York at Oneonta  without debt — back when tuition was affordable, he said.

But then Applebaum took out loans to go to law school.

After graduation, he postponed paying back $65,000 in law school loans so he could work as a criminal prosecutor and pay rent in New York City. That made the debt jump from $65,000 to $85,000.

Frustrated with debates surrounding the economic stimulus package in January 2009, Applebaum wrote an essay arguing for the forgiveness of student loan debt. It spread like wildfire after he posted it on Facebook.

He likened forgiving student debt to a common rationale for tax cuts — his $500 monthly payment could instead be spent in the marketplace and help the economy, he said.

Applebaum started forgivestudentloandebt.com, which didn’t take off until this summer, when Congressman Hansen Clarke,  D-Mich., advocated for cutting, capping and forgiving student debt in Congress.

Whether Applebaum succeeds in getting student loan debt forgiven, he hopes his petition will spark conversation about fixing the problem.

“It’s a problem that isn’t going away, and it isn’t being discussed by the powers that be in Washington,” he said.

On Friday, Applebaum re-posted his petition on We the People,  a new White House site that promises an official response to any petition with more than 5,000 signatures. There, Applebaum already has almost 22,000 signatures.

“I have high hopes it will be taken into consideration,” he said.

Both Obama and former President George W. Bush  have instituted measures attempting to help students with debt.

The 2010 health care reform bill also caps payments and forgives loans for those who make payments on time for 20 years, but only for loans taken out after July 1, 2014.

Reineke found out about the petition through an email from a friend.

She signed the petition because, she said, her student loans will probably double due to interest by the time she’s finished paying them off.

Between car and house payments, it’s hard to chip away at her debt. It’s a story common to people her age, she said, adding her payments would be better spent toward the country’s GDP as consumer spending.

“That’d be a lot of money that our economy could use.”

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