By: Amy Klobuchar, For the News Tribune
Tech Sgt. Joe Acker is a member of the Minnesota Air National Guard 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth. He already has been deployed overseas twice, first to Qatar in 2005 and then to Afghanistan in 2010. He is scheduled for deployment again next spring. At the same time, Acker has been going to school, getting degrees from Lake Superior College and the College of St. Scholastica. Like most college graduates, he acquired significant student loan debt along with his degree.
He’s not alone.
According to the Project on Student Debt, nearly three-quarters of Minnesota college students graduate with debt; the average debt load is more than $27,000. That’s sixth-highest among all states.
Fortunately, college financial aid for veterans and active-duty service members has expanded substantially since the 2008 passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which I voted for.
But many service members, especially National Guard members like Acker, had already racked up considerable student debt, often through the Federal Direct Student Loan program, which provides low-interest loans for students and parents to help pay for the cost of post-secondary education.
In the past decade, Reservists and National Guard members have been deployed overseas to an extent not seen since World War II. Many of them are raising families while also working to repay student loans.
Under current law, when service members are called up for active duty in hostile areas like Iraq or Afghanistan, they receive a deferment on paying back their student loans for that time period. Service members also receive a waiver on the accrual of interest on their student loans for the length of their deployment to a hostile area.
The exact monetary value of the interest waiver depends on the size of the student loan and the length of active duty. For a year-long deployment, estimates suggest the average service member would save between $150 and $200 in accumulated interest.
But there’s a problem.
This benefit applies only to Federal Direct Student Loans dispersed on or after Oct. 1, 2008. It does not apply to loans dispersed before that date. The interest on those loans continues to accrue, even when a service member is in harm’s way defending our country. You could have two soldiers standing right next to each other, with one of them getting the benefit and the other being denied.
It’s clearly a double standard, and it’s unfair.
That’s why I have introduced the “Servicemember Student Loan Interest Relief Act” along with my Republican colleague Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. The bipartisan legislation already is endorsed by the VFW, the Student Veterans Association, the National Military Families Association and the National Guard Association of the United States. This legislation is a matter of common sense and is very simple. It would eliminate the unfair double standard by erasing the arbitrary cut-off date of Oct. 1, 2008, from the law. As a result, any service member on active duty in a hostile area would be entitled to receive the interest waiver, regardless of the date when the student loan was first dispersed.
This benefit would apply to active-duty service members in any military branch, including the Reserves and National Guard. In fact, Reservists and Guard members are the ones most likely to have student loans dispersed before Oct. 1, 2008. That is less than three years ago, but the average length of repayment on a student loan is about 10 years, and it can be as long as 20 or even 30 years.
For someone like Sgt. Acker of the 148th Fighter Wing, passage of this legislation would mean that when he is deployed overseas again next year, his student loan debt would not grow larger with each passing day. Instead, he could be assured the amount would be exactly the same when he returns as when he left.
When our service members are deployed overseas, their focus should be on the success of their mission. The last thing they should have to worry about is how they will be able to afford their student loan payments when they get back.
Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Plymouth, is Minnesota’s senior U.S. senator and was the state’s first elected female senator.