Virginia Gov. Northam signs student consumer protection law at Mason

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam made his third visit to Mason to sign a bill aimed at protecting students and their families from overly burdensome student loan debt. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

George Mason University hosted a conversation with Gov. Ralph Northam about how the Commonwealth of Virginia can ensure students have access to higher education without incurring large amounts of debt. At the end of the June 18 event in Merten Hall on the Fairfax Campus, the governor signed legislation that seeks to better protect students and their families from overly burdensome student loan debt.

Mason has been a leader in making college accessible to lower-income students. It has a remarkable student loan default rate of 2 percent—among the lowest in the nation and well below the national average of 12 percent. This comes as more than 30 percent of Mason students qualify for Pell Grants, an indication those students are from families with fewer resources and must borrow more to attend college.

Northam applauded Mason’s record of providing access to a diverse group of students. He also stressed the importance of the commonwealth providing more resources statewide.

“This is something our administration felt very strongly about,” said Northam, a former pediatric neurologist and Army doctor who heard many such dire stories while teaching at medical school before his jump into politics. “It’s certainly something that I have had personal experience with.”

Mason has the most diverse student body of all public universities in Virginia, according to U.S. News & World Report, including a large segment of underrepresented groups and first-generation students. Mason has long prided itself on its efforts to help students graduate without burdensome debt loads.

The new statute creates an ombudsman office to educate loan borrowers and steer students and their families through what can be a complicated loan process. The aim is to prevent students from leaving college with heavy debt that will burden them for years to come.

Other key provisions include receiving, reviewing and attempting to resolve complaints from qualified education borrowers, compiling and analyzing data on those complaints, assisting qualified education loan borrowers in understanding their rights and responsibilities and addressing any servicing concerns.

Mason Rector Tom Davis, a former congressman who served seven terms in the U.S. House, said an important part of Mason’s mission is to remain affordabile and accessible. He noted that nearly half the enrollment growth at Virginia public universities over the past decade has been driven by Mason.

“Mason has no marked disparity in graduation rates based on race, ethnicity or wealth, and Mason has one of the lowest public university student loan default rates in the country,” Davis said. “That speaks to many Mason attributes: The caliber of our students, our ability to produce career-ready graduates, the internship and job opportunities in the National Capital Region, the vast network of Mason alumni in Northern Virginia and around the state, and, ultimately, the fact that our graduates land good jobs that enable them to pay back their loans.”

According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, recent Mason graduates earn higher starting salaries than graduates of any other public university in the state.

Northam, who was making his third appearance at Mason since assuming office in January, stressed the importance of making sure those life-changing opportunities through higher education remain affordable to all Virginians.

Northam and Davis were joined at the event by State Sen. Janet Howell and Virginia Del. Marcus Simon. Howell, a Democrat from Fairfax, credited the legislation for its potential to help families navigate the loan process.