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Members of Congress Feel Student Loan Pain Firsthand

Later this year, when members of Congress consider whether to extend low rates for federally subsidized student loans, many of them will feel the pain of those who have to borrow to complete their educations.

They know it firsthand: Many lawmakers still owe money on student loans they took out either for themselves or for their children. In fact, five senators and 41 members of the House list student loans of some type as a liability, according to financial disclosure forms for 2011 (the most recent available) analyzed by The money owed on the loans adds up to between $1.8 million and $4.3 million.

Much of the borrowing appears to have been for lawmakers' own educations. The member who reported having the most debt was freshman Rep. Raul Ruiz, whose listed student loan debt is between $115,001 and $300,000. (The California Democrat and adoptive son of migrant farmworkers appears to have taken to school, graduating magna cum laude from UCLA and collecting a medical degree and two other graduate diplomas from Harvard.) In fact, of the five members of Congress who reported owing at least $100,000 on student loans in 2011, four of them took out the loans for themselves or a spouse. But at least 13 members have loans that are listed as either Parent Plus loans, or loans that were co-signed for children or, in one case, a niece. (In some cases, it's not clear who the loans were for.)

Just as the amount of student loan debt has climbed nationally -- at nearly $1 trillion, it now tops credit card debt -- the number of members of Congress with such debt has climbed in the last several years. Disclosure reports filed in 2008 showed that only three senators and 27 House members had student loan debt the year before, totaling between $970,000 and $2.4 million.

Student Loan Debtors In CongressSenateHouse 20072008200920102011015304560
(Disclosure reports for 2011 are for current members of Congress)
Despite the increase in student loan debtors in Congress, though, nationally the numbers are far worse. Some analysts estimate that as many as two-thirds of college graduates now leave school with student loan debt.
Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and publisher of, said that as the cost of college has increased and the level of grants has declined, student loans have become a necessity even for the wealthiest Americans -- a demographic that includes many members of Congress
"The problem has grown enough that even members of Congress now have loans," he said, suggesting that the trend may change the way Congress deals with the student loan issue. "Clearly someone who has had student loans and gone through the pains of paying them is going to be more sympathetic than someone who never had to borrow money to pay for college."
Last spring, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) caused a stir when she said in an interview she had "very little tolerance" for people who graduated from college with high levels of student loan debt because she didn't believe it was necessary. The comment struck a nerve, since Foxx chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee's subpanel on higher education and workforce training. While Foxx never borrowed money to attend college, the analysis of personal financial disclosures shows that this year, four members of her subcommittee report having student loan debt: Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), freshman Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.).
Top Ten Student Loan Debtors
NameMinimum ValueMaximum Value
Rep. James Bridenstine (R)$100,001$250,000
Rep. John Carter (R)$100,001$250,000
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D)$55,003$165,000
Rep. Louis B. Gohmert Jr. (R)$70,001$130,000
Rep. Tom McClintock (R)$60,001$115,000
Rep. Grace Meng (D)$100,001$250,000
Rep. Pedro Pierluisi (D)$65,002$150,000
Rep. Raul Ruiz (D)$115,002$300,000
Rep. Tom Rooney (R)$100,001$250,000
Rep. Kevin Yoder (R)$80,003$200,000
New Senators Bring Debt, Too
The average net worth of members of Congress has always been significantly higher than the average American's, and senators are typically wealthier than their colleagues in the House. That may account for the fact that only 5 percent of senators owe money on student loans compared with a little less than 10 percent of House members. 
Last summer, as Congress debated whether the government should continue offering very low interest rates for some student loans, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) claimed to be one of the few senators who was dealing with the problem firsthand. 
That was indeed the case. Rubio's financial disclosures for 2010 and 2011 show he had between $100,000 and $250,000 in student loan debt, which he attributed to covering the cost of law school. At the time, there was only one other senator with student loan debt -- Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said he owed between $10,000 and $15,000.
Rubio, however, is dropping from the list -- in December, he announced he had paid off the debt, thanks to sales of his book. But, he said, the issue remains important. 
"We need to reform our federal college grant and loan programs. To me, college affordability is an issue that is very personal. Because the only reason why I was able to go to college -- the only reason -- was because of federal grants and loans," Rubio said in a speech in December
The November election added a few new senators with student loan debt -- Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Wisc.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Before she was elected, Warren spent time as the first head of the the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency that monitors student loan issues, and as a professor at Harvard, her alma mater. She still owes between $15,000 and $50,000 to the university. 

Warren and Murphy will join the Senate Education committee, which last year had no members with any listed student loan debt. 
Partisan Split
Although last summer's debate over subsidizing student loan interest rates set up Democrats as being on the side of students -- Republicans tried to block the move citing the cost, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated to be near $6 billion for a one-year extension of lower rates -- a breakdown by party of those lawmakers who carry some type of student loan debt skews slightly to the right. According to's analysis, 22 Democrats listed student loan debt for 2011 (including independent Sen. Angus King of Maine who caucuses with the Democrats), while 24 Republicans did so. 
The year-long extension of the lower rates will expire this summer. Financial aid expert Kantrowitz said that he expects the issue to become more bipartisan -- because it makes a good campaign issue.
"The students and their families are applying more pressure than ever," he said, noting that both President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney were quick to back the extension of subsidized interest rates. "I think that we're going to start seeing similar effects in congressional races, especially as college affordability goes down hill."

The pressure could ramp up if budget sequestration kicks in this year, because the Pell grant program for students is likely to be cut. Fewer grants likely means more students will take out loans. 

Several lawmakers called for comment on their student loans were unavailable.

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