U.S. House Rep. Debbie Dingell (D–Mich.) joined students and college administrators from across the state in Ann Arbor on Thursday to discuss college affordability.

Dingell, who hosted the event, began the round table by outlining challenges faced by many students, especially when it comes to large amounts of loan debt.

“We’re all concerned at the staggering amount of student debt that we now see in this country,” she said. “Nearly 40 million Americans owe $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. And 1.5 million people here in Michigan owe $39 billion.”

Dingell highlighted a particular bill she’s co-sponsoring, the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, which would allow borrowers with federal student loans to refinance their loans. Refinancing loans can lead to lower interest rates.

“You can refinance a mortgage, you can refinance a car, but you can’t refinance your student loans,” Dingell said. “We want to be able to help you and those that have gone before you that have got some of this staggering debt refinanced to a lower level.”

Dingell said at the undergraduate level, refinancing could save students $4,000 on a $30,000 loan.

She also touched on the various restrictions on federal grants like Pell Grants, such as the requirement that recipients complete their education in six years.

“I believe that each student is a different student,” she said. “The UM-Dearborn campus and the UM-Flint campus has students with families … that are working to support a household and children and trying to get an education.”

College officials in attendance highlighted several programs at their institutions focused on affordability. Curt Gielow, chief campus executive of Concordia University in Ann Arbor, talked about a new program called the Concordia Promise.

The Promise allows high school juniors and seniors at certain Lutheran and Christian high schools to take 30 college credits from Concordia at $50 per credit hour. A typical credit usually costs $650, he said.

“If you do that, you’ve essentially paid us $1,500, but you’ve earned 30 credits,” he said. “Now, if you then come to Concordia in Ann Arbor or the Concordia in Wisconsin that we’ve partnered with, we’ll give you back the $1,500 and move you in as a sophomore. You in essence have gotten the first year of college for free.”

Davon Shakleford, a Washtenaw Community College student, said he plans to transfer to the University but is concerned with the affordability of student housing.

“If there is a way to make affordable student housing more accessible to students, that would be very helpful,” Shakleford said. “The housing around Ann Arbor is very expensive.”

Public Policy senior Bobby Dishell, Central Student Government president, agreed with Shakleford. He said many students have to search for housing outside Ann Arbor, which makes them reliant on public transport and means they miss out on campus life.

“Students aren’t talking about the classes, they’re talking about the social aspect, being able to go to the games, and being part of that community,” he said. “It leaves out the students who aren’t able to afford the social costs at Michigan.”

Another issue brought up was the cost of books, which Eric Penrose, Eastern Michigan University student, called extravagant.

“At some points, I’ve had to go to the corner of a book store and take a picture of the page I needed just to cover what I needed to know because I had no money,” Penrose said. “That is a huge issue, especially since most students spend about $400 a semester on books, some even more based on their fields.”

LSA senior Antoinette Hemby, who is an out-of-state student, said the high cost of books often caused her to make difficult choices.

“I have the struggle of: am I going to buy books, or am I going to fly home for Thanksgiving?” Hemby said.

Gielow said one potential solution is for professors to create their own textbooks by taking pieces from different versions and binding them for a cheaper price, as some Concordia professors do.

Linda Blakey, vice president of student and academic services at Washtenaw Community College, said they are also trying to reduce costs through collaboration.

“Our library services are developing online educational resources that are free,” Blakey said. “They bring their materials together and look at what they can have students use.”

Attendees also touched on the federal application for student aid, FAFSA.

Margaret Rodriguez, senior associate director of Financial Aid, agreed with several other comments calling the FAFSA unnecessarily complicated and said there are other options available to assess students than the current, lengthy FAFSA.

“How many times do students have to tell you that they’re poor?” Rodriguez said. “One should be plenty.”

The discussion touched on providing financial literacy opportunities to all students, addressing the large amount of pre-existing debt and alternate options for students who can’t pay their loans.

In an interview after the event with The Michigan Daily, Dingell said she hosts the round table meetings to become more engaged with the topic.

“I know higher education affordability is a real issue for young people every day,” Dingell said. “It’s an issue that’s mattered to me before I got elected, and I’m continuing with that. I’m meeting a lot of people who, for example, can’t go on to graduate school, so I want to understand the issues. And then, I’m a more effective advocate when I’m armed with facts.”

She added that Thursday’s round table in particular identified several new potential issues for her to look into.

“It raises awareness for everybody,” she said. “I really want to go through the grants, the Pell Grants and see what kind of issues they have. I’m going to go back and find out why some people are saying in-person loan counseling is a barricade. Why are they saying that? What are the pros and what are the cons? That’s what I do.”

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