Student loans are important to 34-year-old freshman State Sen. Kevin Thomas.
Before his blue-wave upset win on Long Island in 2018, the Levittown state senator used to run a project out of Bronx Civil Court that arranged for free representation for defendants who were sued for credit card or car debt, or student loans.
And, like many New Yorkers these days, he has student loan debt himself: more than $200,000. Law degrees don’t tend to be cheap.
Owing money for education is a trillion dollar issue nationwide and common in New York. The total student loan debt burden in the Empire State is more than $90 billion, according to a 2019 Student Loan Protection Center analysis of U.S. Department of Education data. Close to half of all millennials in New York owe student loan money, according to the report, along with more than 200,000 older borrowers (ranging from 55-85).
In New York City alone, about 15 percent of adults have a student loan, as per a 2017 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
In his previous life, Thomas saw how this played out on the ground — the debt piling up, the defaults leading to people being sued or their paychecks being tapped. And then there were those for whom the education received didn’t lead to a job.
When the economy crashed in 2008, Thomas says, there were a number of for-profit schools running subway advertising promising big salaries upon completion of their programs. Often the graduates were just left with debt.
Thomas says he once represented a private school student loan borrower who had been trying to go to a real estate school a la Trump University. The school told the borrower to say he was going to New York University when he applied for the loan. The first semester, the school provided no classes, just some DVDs in the mail.
Thomas represented the man in state court and says he got the $20,000 loan dismissed.
Now, Thomas is looking to bring student loan aid to New Yorkers through legislation. He’s hoping that his bill, which would require that student loan servicers are licensed, makes it out of the looming budget process in full.
He’s also pushing for more funding for the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, which would decrease the need for some loans.
Other student loan reforms are floating around Albany, including more for-profit college accountability in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal.
The Community Service Society of New York is looking to create a “Student Loan Consumer Assistance Program” to guide borrowers through the bureaucratic morass and perhaps save them money.
Then there’s new and perhaps more moonshot legislation from Queens Assemb. Ron Kim, which would create “the office of financial freedom to assist in the monetization, purchasing, and cancellation of personal debt, including student loan debt.”
That doesn’t appear to be as likely to survive the current budget fight, but it shows some of the political urgency for the issue, particularly at a time when the federal government’s oversight appears to be slacking. A February report from the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general found that the agency’s student loans unit was falling short on supervision.
“We have a problem,” says Thomas.