Sherrod Brown pushes for big changes to student finance law

A staple of Ohio politics since the mid-70s, Sen. Sherrod Brown has made a career out of effective public service.

On Tuesday, April 21, The Cleveland Stater spoke with the senator about that decades long resume, including his efforts to safely increase access to higher education, as well as Congress’ battle over student loan debt.

Born and raised in Mansfield, Ohio, the 62-year-old democrat and senior senator has held his current position since 2007, after defeating incumbent Mike DeWine during Ohio’s 2006 senatorial run.

In the 2012 senatorial race, he would successfully defend his seat against Republican opponent Josh Mandel in what could easily be described as the David and Goliath of senatorial races.

After a 2010 Supreme Court ruling declared corporations could make political expenditures under the First Amendment, enormous amounts of special interest money flooded into Ohio – a state that is often considered pivotal to putting candidates in the Oval Office. Brown successfully fended off one of the most heated and negative attack campaigns in recent history, winning the election with 50.7 percent of the vote to Mandel’s 44.7 percent.

Prior to his federal role, Brown was a member of the United States House of Representatives, acted as Ohio’s Secretary of State and held a seat in the Ohio House of Representatives.

Despite receiving his undergraduate degree from Yale University, followed by a Master of Public Administration and Master of Arts in education from Ohio State University, Brown has remained faithful to the blue collar community. That loyalty has won him a title he proudly wears: champion of the middle-class.

In his more than 30 years as a public servant, the senator has earned himself contested district seats and perfect scores from the Human Rights Campaign for his stance on LGBT issues.

He has even taken the lead in convening the Ohio College Presidents Conference, an annual event where prominent members of the education community discuss ways of gathering federal support to promote higher education and job training in the state.

His experience, coupled with his dedication, has paved the way to a well-respected political career focused on aligning public interest and national support with the needs of America’s families and workers.

Having always been a strong proponent of public access and transparency, Brown’s focus on making education more accessible through public universities and community colleges has taken him in several different directions.

This includes speaking out against the at times harmful relationship between universities and banking institutions like Higher One, who provide federal aid management and disbursement systems to students in the form of credit and debit cards.

The senator took a hardline stance against the partnerships back in 2012, arguing that many of the card companies’ programs contained hidden fees that cut into both students’ and the government’s limited financial aid dollars.

“They disadvantage students because they’ve been out on their own for a shorter period of time,” Brown said. “Many do, but some students don’t have the financial sophistication of dealing with complex bank language. I mean, few people can really understand what banks say when you sign up for credit cards. It’s not always very well disclosed. Students are more vulnerable because they are underage and because they haven’t been dealing with banks as much.”

In a letter to Higher One, the senator urged the company and others like it to provide student users with the same standards and protections as regular credit card holders.

Since Brown’s call for change, he says little effort has been made to ease the program’s disadvantages.

“The banks have not been especially responsive on this, as you would expect,” Brown said. “They’ve also not been responsive on the renegotiating of student loans.”

In addition to predatory programs, a good portion of Brown’s congressional work has addressed issues within the larger banking and finance industries. Appointed as Ranking Democratic Member on the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs this past January, Brown has spent an increasing amount of time developing and supporting student loan reform.

In a country where secondary education is largely free, those entering the post-secondary world are struggling to find ways to gain fair access to higher educational opportunities -and not just when it comes to prestigious institutions.

Student loan debt is at an all new high. Per The Institute of College Access and Success, seven in 10 seniors who graduated in 2013 at universities averaged $28,400 in student loan debt. Meanwhile, 40 million Americans are paying off their educational loans as of September 2014. That number is up from 2008’s reported 29 million, according to CNN Money.

Like Higher One, private lenders are being labeled predatory and with good reason, according to Brown. Unlike other types of debt, the private banks are offering loans to borrowers with no proven financial track or credit history.

As a result, young people with limited knowledge and financial resources are burying themselves in a world of financial trouble.

The senator puts part of the responsibility for the growing issue on the shoulders of universities and colleges.

“Universities have not done enough to contain costs,” Brown said. “Universities have not done enough to protect students from some kinds of predatory lending, whether it’s student loans or other kinds of lending. [Some] universities have not done enough to steer students away from the private loan market into the federal loan program that has a lower interest rate and is more forgiving in ways.”

When it comes to Congress’ role, the senator believes they have too fallen short, in more ways than one.

“What Congress’ role needs to be is consumer protection,” Brown said. “Congress should obviously continue to strengthen consumer protections and continue to do more with Pell grants. It should help people refinance, but the Republicans filibustered that.”

While the senator notes a lack of accountability and sound management on the part of universities, he acknowledges that Congress is, in addition to their own shortcomings, partly responsible with this as well.

“The state legislature has failed our state universities,” Brown said. “The prices have gone up too much because the state continues to want to give tax cuts aimed overwhelmingly at the rich. As a result they’ve had less revenue to fund higher education.”

Brown is ultimately disheartened by the current issues and their ramifications for Ohio’s young people.

“It means some kids don’t go to college who would otherwise,” Brown said. “What the state legislature is doing is taking away opportunities for working class kids that a generation ago might have had.”

This interview first appeared in the May 4, 2015 issue of The Cleveland Stater.

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