Warner talks student debt during University visit

Senator discussed bipartisan initiative to ease family college financial planning


Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA, came to O’Hill Forum Wednesday as a stop on his Tackling Student Debt Tour, discussing with students the current issues involved with student debt and potential methods of resolution.

Warner said he empathized with those who had debt, himself graduating from Harvard Law School with $15,000 owed in student loans. The first company he worked for, an energy startup, went bankrupt; in his second job — this time in real estate — Warner said he “failed miserably.” Finally, in the 1980s, he found success as a co-founder of Nextel, joking that from there he was able to “eke out a living.”

“The point is that if I had come out [of college] the way many students are now — with 40, 50, $60,000 of debt — I’m not sure I would have had the courage or the ability to take those multiple [business] chances,” Warner said. “It really is an enormous challenge.”

Warner said the key to resolving issues of student debt will be to make sure families are informed about all of their options. To this end, Warner and Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL, have been working on the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would ensure prospective college students and their parents have better access to comparative data as it relates to higher education programs.

“It’s kind of a no brainer,” Warner said. “Why don’t we create a user-friendly website — just like any of the various travel sites out there — that places every college, every community college, every vocational school and technical school with full transparency on what your chances are of graduating, how much average debt you are going to have to take on [and] how long it usually takes to graduate. If you major in a particular field, [the website will inform you of] your chances of getting a job [and] how much it is going to pay.”

Warner also said low-income high school students and their families should think about limiting student loan debt by taking AP or dual enrollment credits which can count toward future collegiate degrees.

“How many of you entered college with either AP or dual enrollment credits?” Warner asked the crowd, with the vast majority of the audience raising their hands. “If we asked the same question at virtually every other university in Virginia, the number would be one-tenth that. But if we’re really going to think about first-generation kids and getting them through college, we ought to think: does college still have to be four years? Can we knock a semester or a year off in high school? Can we do dual enrollment in community colleges?”

The Senator warned the United States is rapidly losing its role as a “world [leader]” with regards to education, research and infrastructure. Specifics aside, Warner reaffirmed his belief in students’ inherent right to higher education, but said resources are necessary to back the idea.

“You can say that everyone should have an affordable and accessible option for higher education, but if you’re not willing to put the resources behind [that statement], it becomes political talk, not reality,” he said.

Warner also fielded questions on international affairs at the event. He said the U.S. must take an active stand on the recent political turmoil in Ukraine and in response to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. He advocated for strong global collaboration and said he hopes President Barack Obama confronts these issues at the current NATO meeting.

“The United States can’t shoulder every burden,” Warner said. “One of the biggest disappointment has been the failure of the Europeans [to] stand up against Putin and the [Russian forces].”

On the nation’s debt, which sits at $17 trillion dollars, Warner said sequestration, a program of massive, across-the-board spending cuts “is stupidity on steroids.”

“[The debt] grows by $3 billion dollars a night and what is happening is because our political system is not willing to wrestle with this,” he said.

Warner also emphasized the important role of innovation in energy policy.

“[One thing to be noted] is the explosion of natural gas, which I support,” Warner said. “And I believe that would include the exporting of natural gas to Europe, which would allow for Europe to become less reliant on Russia for that energy source”.

Joseph Liss contributed to the reporting for this article.

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