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PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Seth Frotman speak at a town hall on student debt held at the Community College of Philadelphia on Oct. 7. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News. 
PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Seth Frotman speak at a town hall on student debt held at the Community College of Philadelphia on Oct. 7. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News. 

Attorney General Josh Shapiro talks the student debt crisis at the Community College of Philadelphia

Pennsylvania is “ground zero” for student debt, but its attorney general is fighting to change that.

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Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro is a pretty educated guy. As if his elected position didn’t give away that distinction, Shapiro attended the University of Rochester in New York for undergrad before heading to Georgetown in the nation’s capital for a law degree. 

After graduating, Shapiro dove head first into a career in public service and has stayed the course to this day as Attorney General. 

Now, even though his Attorney General salary is not too shabby, Shapiro admitted to a crowd on Monday night at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) that as he sends his first son off to college next year, he himself “isn’t close” to paying off his own steep student loan debts.

The admission came in the context of a town hall Shapiro held Monday night alongside Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center in Washington D.C. at CCP to discuss the overall student debt crisis, its status in Pennsylvania and what his office is doing to help.

Numbers-wise, one in four Americans are paying back their student loans from college for a grand total of $1.53 trillion of student loan debt across the country. 

In Pennsylvania, graduates owe on average, the most of any state at $36,193. A status that Shapiro has seen force the migration of people from rural parts of the state to urban centers.

“There’s no silver bullet,” said Frotman regarding potential solutions to the student debt crisis.

The current situation federally makes solving the problem even more difficult, with Secretary of Education Betsy Devos supporting legislation that protects the institutions making predatory loans rather than the individuals forced to pay them back.

Specifically, Shapiro cited federal interpretations of “gainful employment” and “borrower’s defense” as limiting to the amount of relief that can be won for those fallen victim to predatory loans.

Devos’ “fixes” to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Promise for public servants has only lowered the rejection rate of the program from 99 to 97% according to Frotman. 

Despite the national movement, there are still things being done in favor of those in debt at the state level.

Shapiro pointed many times throughout the night to a January lawsuit filed by his office against Navient, a Wilmington-based student loan collector alleging their engagement in predatory lending, as an example of what’s being done.

He expressed confidence in the lawsuit’s success and urged anyone with loans tied to the company to reach out to his office to tell their story.

“The more information we have, the better case we have,” said Shapiro.

He’s also recommended outside counsel to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), a quasi-governmental agency that has also engaged in questionable lending practices to students and faces lawsuits from other states.

“I couldn’t in my right mind represent them,” said Shapiro, whose office would normally represent PHEAA in any lawsuit due to its state association.  

Beyond sharing their stories with his office, Shapiro and Frotman both encouraged those in attendance to “put the issue on the ballot.”

“Let your elected officials know of the importance of this issue,” said Shapiro.

As for policies he thinks should be in place, there were many for Shapiro, but two of the most important of the town hall were his support of free community college education along with income-based determinations for state and state-affiliated institutions and exemption of all student debt in the event of declared bankruptcy.

Regarding the latter, student loan debt is the only kind of debt not to be wiped out after declaring bankruptcy. In some cases, the institution can declare bankruptcy, but leave students saddled with federal loans — which only become exempt after expensive court fights. When asked about bankruptcy forgiveness for student loans, Shapiro was adamant.

“Can I say, hell yeah?” he said.

For Frotman, the current crisis at hand is one that is based on a major misconception about today’s recent graduates.

“It’s not that millennials are in debt because they make bad decisions with their money,” he said. “It’s that they’re being saddled with more debt than any generation before them.”

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