The Student Loan Ranger has documented how the increased cost of college has affected people across the socioeconomic spectrum. Students from poor, working class, middle class and even well-off families are finding that grants, scholarships and federal programs like work-study and Pell grants don't go as far as they used to.
Pell grants in particular – which have helped 60 million students attend college – have seen majorchanges to availability and eligibility driven by cost increases. In order to pay for a higher education, more Americans are taking out increasing amounts of student loans.
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Now, according to the Open Secrets blog, student loan debt is increasingly hurting one of the most privileged classes in America – members of Congress.
The wealth disparity between ordinary Americans and members of Congress is considerable. OpenSecrets.org estimates that the median net worth of the typical American household is $66,740; the median estimated net worth of the 535 members of Congress is $966,000.
Not surprisingly, there are some extraordinarily wealthy members of Congress. Just as important, only 25 members of Congress (5 percent) have a negative estimated net worth. OpenSecrets.org has also found that "Members of Congress have been getting slightly richer in recent years."
According to OpenSecrets.org's analysis of 2011 financial disclosure forms, 46 members (five senators and 41 representatives) of Congress list student loans as a liability, up from 30 members in 2008. That's about 8 percent of Congress, far less than the two-thirds of college seniors who graduated from public and private nonprofit four year colleges with debt in 2011.
Congress' student loans total between $1.8 million and $4.3 million; it's a wide range because the reporting requirements don't mandate exact numbers. Members of Congress can't be compared to the average undergraduate for a wide variety of reasons, including the fact that many of them probably have graduate degrees.
But it's worth noting that even the low end of $1.8 million averages out to $39,130 for each member of Congress with student debt. That is half again as much as the average of $26,600 borrowed by those 2011 college seniors who graduated with debt.
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Many members of Congress, like many parents, also have helped finance their children's educations. OpenSecrets.org found that at least 13 loans were taken out by members of Congress to finance the education of children and others.
Not surprisingly, the amount of student debt is on the upswing in Congress too. OpenSecrets.org found that only three senators and 27 House members disclosed student loan debt, which totaled somewhere between $970,000 and $2.4 million, in 2008.
The takeaway is that the student debt problem is hitting Americans with some of the highest incomes and highest achievement,, which helps reveal the breadth and significance of the problem.
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It also raises some of the issues we discussed in our look at the striking rise in six-figure student loan debt. We noted there that undergraduates with six-figure debt were significantly more likely to attend expensive colleges, nonprofit colleges and the most selective higher educational institutions.
Students from high income families were also more likely to have six-figure student loan debt. Taken together, this may indicate the percentage of students from privileged backgrounds at elite institutions is rising and the percentage of lower-income students at these institutions is falling. This would be a troubling trend, and one that would accelerate if grants, scholarships and federal aid continue to fall further behind the cost of college.
It would also not be surprising if these trends are being reflected in Congress. On the positive side, it may mean some members of Congress may become more amenable to reforms providing relief to distressed borrowers like the Student Loan Fairness Act and making college more affordable. The Student Loan Ranger wouldn't recommend looking at campaign finance filings and voting for the Congressional candidates with the most student debt – but it's a thought.
Isaac Bowers is a senior program manager in the Communications and Outreach unit, responsible for Equal Justice Works's educational debt relief initiatives. An expert on educational debt relief, Bowers conducts monthly webinars for a wide range of audiences; advises employers, law schools, and professional organizations; and works with Congress and the Department of Education on federal legislation and regulations. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, he was a fellow at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco. He received his J.D. from New York University School of Law.