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Students react to Congress' vote on loans

Jenna Lynn McMahon, 24, who graduated last year

Jenna Lynn McMahon, 24, who graduated last year from the University of Tampa. She is working part-time, doing an unpaid internship and waiting tables on the weekends to help pay $900/month in student loans. She lives at home with her parents in Massapequa.(June 27, 2012) Credit: ULI SEIT

In her busy summer, Jenna Lynn McMahon has a part-time job she likes and an unpaid internship that's giving her great experience.

But if something has to go, it's not the third job she has waiting tables at a local German restaurant.

"I hand that money right over to pay my student loans," said McMahon, 24, of Massapequa, who graduated last year from the University of Tampa.

The nearly $900 per month she pays will probably grow when she goes to graduate school.

While relieved that Congress agreed Friday to keep interest rates low on federal Stafford loans, McMahon is among those who say the discussion on students' debt burden is far from over.

With a deadline looming Sunday, Congress acted Friday to extend for one year the current 3.4 percent interest rate on Stafford loans. The rate was set to double, increasing monthly payments for some 7 million students.

James Pollitt of Valley Stream is among them.

He's on track to graduate from George Washington University with a bachelor's degree in political science and criminal justice in December, a semester early, with $45,000 in debt, some of it in subsidized Stafford loans.

"It's daunting, especially if you can't get a job, because you have to start repaying those loans six months after graduation," said Pollitt, 21, who stayed in Washington, D.C., for a summer internship.

He also works part time for a federal agency and nights in a campus deli. He said the 25 to 30 hours of work per week take a toll on his studies and his involvement in campus activities.

"You lose a little of the college experience when you have the expenses on your mind," he said.

Kevin Stump, higher education program coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the advocacy group was thrilled Congress finally came to an agreement. But, he pointed out, the move is a quick fix.

"When Congress addresses this issue one year from now, they may be faced with filling an even greater shortfall to keep student loan interest rates low again," Stump said. "Increasing costs and decreasing financial aid opportunities are pricing students out of higher education."

LIU Post Provost Paul Forestell has been closely watching the issue and believes it is being fueled by politics and a larger philosophical debate on the value Americans place on college. Higher education is currently suffering a "death by 1,000 cuts," he said.

Forestell said data clearly show that a college degree is instrumental to an individual's future success -- both in higher lifetime income and better quality of life. The debate in Congress over the worth of funding a program for cash-strapped college students was upsetting, he said.

"Students all over the country get thrown under the bus while politicians are fighting," Forestell said.

When there is limited access to grants and other scholarships, students look to loans. He predicted desperate students would increase their debt load, and default on student loan bills.

Lisa Kandell, deputy director of the Office of Student Financial Services at Adelphi University, said her office, too, kept a close eye on Congress this week.

"The goal here is to support the student throughout their educational career. We encourage a loan as the last resort," said Kandell, who admits that at times it can be challenging to stay on top of the changing rules for various grant programs and student loan options.

Adelphi runs individual appointments with students throughout the year and the summer, as well as a mandatory money management seminar for freshman.

As for McMahon, her part-time job educating families about teen drunken driving at the Community Parent Center Inc. in Bellmore and her internship with the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence seem to be steering her toward a future in social work and advocacy. It would require a master's degree and more debt on top of the $75,000 she already owes for her undergraduate degree.

She'd also like to launch into adulthood, get a full-time job, move out on her own, buy a car -- and possibly, at some point, get married and have children. She tries to stay positive, but her worries about student debt and the uncertain job market get to her sometimes.

"I don't understand how we're supposed to live our lives with this hanging over us," she said. "It seems to really hold a lot of people back."

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