Warner reintroduces bills to help student loan borrowers

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WASHINGTON (CBS19 NEWS) -- Across the country, student loan debt has surpassed credit cards and auto loans as the leading source of non-housing debt.

Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, and in Virginia, 62 percent of recent graduates have student loan debt.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia says the average student loan debt amount in the Commonwealth is more than $33,000.

U.S. Senator Mark Warner has now reintroduced several bills in an attempt to alleviate such debt issues.

The Senate is getting ready to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, and Warner's three pieces of legislation would provide relief to borrowers.

The bills would promote financial literacy so students could make more informed decisions and better manage their debt; make it easier for students to put existing college course credits to use and receive degrees or credentials they have already earned; and provide legal recourse for borrowers needing to sever a joint consolidation plan, including people who are being held responsible for an abusive or uncommunicative spouse's loans.

"Like many Americans, I had to rely on student loans in order to pay for my tuition and graduate from college," said Warner. "However, the rising cost of education has forced more and more people to rely on exorbitant student loans just to have a chance at competing in the workforce."

The first bill is called the Empowering Students through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act, and it would increase financial literacy among prospective borrowers.

Under current law, institutions are only required to provide one-time entrance and exit counseling to borrowers who are getting federal student aid, but not Parent PLUS loans and consolidation loans.

Under this bill, federal student loan borrowers, parents and students, would need to get annual counseling reflecting their individual borrowing situation and they would need to consent annually before receiving federal student loans.

Pell Grant recipients would also need to get annual counseling, and the U.S. Secretary of Education would be directed to maintain and distribute a counseling tool that institutions can use to provide such annual counseling.

The second bill is called the Reverse Transfer Efficiency Act, which would aim to make it easier for students to get degrees they have already earned by facilitating a process called "reverse transferring" college credits.

In other words, credits from a four-year institution could be transferred to a two-year one at which the students had previously been enrolled to identify if they had earned enough credits along the way to receive a degree or certification.

The bill would create an exemption under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, better known as FERPA, that would allow for the sharing of credit data between post-secondary institutions where the student had been enrolled.

Under current law, students can give institutions proactive permission to transfer such credits, but Warner says this is an unnecessary bureaucratic step that diminishes credential attainment rates.

If this bill were to pass, it could help four million Americans, including more than 123,000 Virginias, receive credentials they would have otherwise attained through their study programs.

The third bill is the Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act that would aim to help borrowers who had previously consolidated their student loan debt with that of a spouse.

The program was eliminated in 2006 by Congress and Warner says no other method to sever existing loans in the event of domestic violence, economic abuse or unresponsiveness was provided.

This means people who wanted to separate such consolidate loans had no legal options to do so.

The bill would create a process at the U.S. Department of Education through which affected borrowers, including those who have survived domestic abuse, would be able to separate their student loan debt from that of a former spouse.

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