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© Frank

interviews

In Conversation with Rep. Al Lawson

by Representative Al Lawson
September 21, 2020

This interview with Representative Lawson, who represents the 5th congressional district in Florida and authored the Student Opportunity Act, to provide economic relief for those who have student loans, was conducted and condensed by franknews. 

Representative Lawson |  I represent the 5th congressional district in Florida. It is about 206 miles that runs from the Chattahoochee River in Gadsden County to the St. Johns River in Howell County, which is in Jacksonville. You have two major cities and everything else in between. It's a rural area. I am very familiar with this area after many years of serving in the Florida legislature in the House and the Senate.

Screen Shot 2020 09 21 at 9.46.50 PM

frank | How long have you been a congressman?

I've been a congressman for three and a half years, coming up on four years. I'm getting used to it. It's something that I had always aspired to do, to go to Congress, and I was fortunate to get elected. 

I had to make adjustments when I first arrived. Everything is based on seniority. You have to pay your dues in order to gain power in Congress and move up, unlike the Florida legislature. I've adjusted to my colleagues and adjusted to the leadership in Congress.

I want to talk about H.R.5287 - which focuses on fair student loan collection practices. Why this bill specifically important to you?

I have a large number of students in my area. Between the several colleges and universities across the district, I have over a hundred thousand students. One of the critical issues students face is the debt they have from taking out student loans in order to go to school.  

When they come out of school, debt collectors are hounding them before they even have jobs.

It has become even more important to address this issue during the pandemic. People are coming out of school while the economy is going down and job growth is slow to come back. There is even more pressure on students who are coming out of school. 

Debt collectors keep tabs on the students because they are so worried about them paying. The students who have loans from the federal government should not be pushed so hard by debt collectors. It just does not make sense for the federal government to benefit off the backs of students.

Florida, of all the states, has had the largest recent increase in student debt. How does that affect your state's economy?

It is causing young people in my state to possibly not want to go to college in Florida. We definitely need to turn our situation around. I hear from parents all the time -- when I filed this bill, they got in contact with me and said, what can we do to help? It is a large consumer issue.

I had a sister that went to school late, and when she retired from teaching she was, and is, still paying off student loans. That's one of the things that I think about and say, eventually, we are going to need to examine this system. 

At the federal level, due to the Department of Education's Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) federal employees who have student loans and work in Congress can have their loan amount reduced. The states should be doing the same thing, especially the state of Florida. 

If students go to work for the state of Florida, then a portion of money every year could go towards liquidating some of the student loan debt that they have.

What push back do you get?

We were able to pass the bill out of the financial services committee but it's sitting in the judiciary. 

Some of the pushback comes from Republican members. I continue to try to work with them.

I tell them that these students are not Democrats or Republicans, they are students. What affects one group of students affects the other group. 

The philosophy around student debt should be that we represent the same kind of student.

We shouldn't be hung up on whether they need to pay this or they need to pay that or if they defaulted on their loans. They don't want to default on their loans, it's just that they don't have jobs. We need to be more considerate and make sure we continue to reduce interest rates so that it is more feasible for students to pay their loans, still make a living, and still buy a home or a car.

Why do you feel like income-based repayment plans are important?

I think that the flexibility that it gives them in payment is important. That's what it's all about. I think it is critical to credit health to allow students flexibility. I think most people can agree that income-based payment plans are great for college students. I have spoken to many students and students seem to really like that idea.

I think it is important to add nuance around jobs and projected incomes to payment plans. If you get a certain degree that has a certain level of projected income, I think that is important information to have in the conversation around income-based repayment plans. I think it's critically important.

Should student loan debt be canceled, in your opinion?

I don't think it should be canceled. I know during this presidential election that some candidates were for canceling student loan debt, but at this moment I would say no. 

There are some grey areas. I'll give an example. With this pandemic, you have nurses and doctors on front lines who just came out of medical school. I think in that case their debt should be canceled. This is one way the government and society can pay them back for putting their lives on the line every day. 

But generally speaking, I think we just need to have flexibility in payment. We need to allow students to transition in and out of payment if they don't have jobs so that penalties don’t rack up against them.

Do you feel like it's politically feasible to change how student loan debt works?

I think it is. I think that's one thing we have to embrace because society benefits so much from a trained and educated workforce. We have to be more flexible. 

In Congress, we need to look at things differently from the way we looked at them 30 years ago. We operate on the same philosophy that we operated on many years ago, but everything is changing. 

We have a different student population now. Universities have been increasing and increasing tuition, and requiring students and their parents to pay more and more money. It was not like this 30 years ago. We have increased the amount of money that students need in order to attend universities. The government has not been flexible in embracing and understanding what is happening to many students. 

Students can't function as adults and share an American dream if they are tied to all this debt.

Have you found an angle in terms of talking about student debt that is most effective when working across the aisle?

Yes. In the past three years, I have been able to engage many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Once you are able to talk to them for a while, they start to see things a little bit differently. Many of them had issues when they were in school. In fact, some of them were even on food stamps while they were in college. They don't talk about that.

I found that as a result of this communication, I've been able to have good conversations and come to the conclusion that we have to do something about student loans to help the economic progress that we are making as a society. I mean, we want smart people. That is what is needed to sustain our economy.

I think what is still critical and important to this conversation is the idea that we provide students with financial counseling only at the very end when they are released into the world with all of this debt. They don't know what all the debt is going to do to them. We need to fix that. We also need to make sure, unless students are in some sort of professional school, that they aren't in school for longer than five years. It shouldn't take longer than that for them to complete all their requirements while at the same time racking up more and more student debt. We need to fix that also.