With New Order, Obama Aims To Combat Student Debt Pressures

President Obama is signing an executive order Monday, which will expand a loan forgiveness program for college debt. NPR's Mara Liasson looks at the program and the political salience of the issue.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. President Obama took action today to help ease the economic burden of student debt. He signed an executive order that would allow some borrowers to tie student loan repayments to their income. And he backed a bill in the Senate that would allow graduates to refinance their debt. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: For years, there's been a simple message about a college degree, it really pays off. People who go to college earn more than people who do not. But, said President Obama today...

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Here's the problem. At a time when higher education has never been more important, it's also never been more expensive. Over the last three decades, the average tuition of a public university has more than tripled. At the same time, the typical family's income has gone up just 16 percent.

LIASSON: There's about $1 trillion in federal student loans outstanding and another 100 billion in private student loans. And the sluggish economic recovery makes that burden even harder to bear for graduates like Ashley Perviler in North Carolina.

ASHLEY PERVILER: I'm working in retail right now. I have a college degree, and I'm working at Macy's in the ladies shoe department. And I'm just like, what am I doing? I'm $30,000 in debt. I'm 23 years old, like, it's insane.

LIASSON: That debt hurts the economy because it prevents young people from buying a home or starting a business. So today, the president signed an executive order making an additional 5 million borrowers eligible for the administration's pay as you earn program, which caps monthly payments at 10 percent of income and forgives unpaid debt after 20 years. Student loans are one of the kitchen table issues Democratic candidates are highlighting this election year. Strategist Geoff Garin said that 70 percent of voters with student debt say it's one of their biggest economic worries.

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GEOFF GARIN: The challenge of getting ahead economically is still the dominant issue for voters. Our research shows that when Democrats really play offense on these issues they have the winning hand. And college affordability and the burden of student debt is a central part of that debate and that discussion.

LIASSON: This week Senate Democrats will bring up a bill that would allow people to refinance their federally backed student loans. But since reduced interest payments would bring in less money to the treasury, Democrats are proposing to offset the cost by closing tax loopholes for wealthy individuals.

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OBAMA: And I want Americans to pay attention to see where their lawmakers priorities lie here. Lower tax bills for millionaires, or lower student bills for the middle class. This should be a no-brainer.

LIASSON: Last year, Congress voted with big bipartisan majorities to prevent student loan rates from jumping. But now, the fight has returned to the familiar partisan stand-off about taxes. Democrats think the contrast will help them in the fall, and the president wasn't shy about making the partisan argument today.

OBAMA: One of the things I want all of the voters out there to consider, particularly parents who are struggling, trying to figure out how am I going to pay my kid's college education. Take a look and see who is it that's fighting for you and your kids and who is it that's not.

LIASSON: Today, House Speaker John Boehner blasted the president's executive order, saying won't reduce the cost of college or help graduates find a job. And in the Senate, the ranking member of education committee, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, rejected the Democrats refinancing legislation.

SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER: To pay for all of this, we're going to raise individual income taxes by $72 billion. Now this is a familiar proposal. This is the class warfare tax increase that the Senate has rejected eight times. There's nobody in this Senate that thinks this will pass the Senate the ninth time it's brought up.

LIASSON: So the usual stalemate framed with the usual rhetoric. With the Senate Democrats' bill unlikely to pass, the president is left with an issue and his executive order. But even that won't help any borrowers any time soon and certainly not before the next election. The president's expansion of the pay-as-you-earn program will not go into effect before December of 2015. That's how long it takes for the education department to get the new regulations into effect. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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