Sen. Mark Warner meets with Mason students to talk about college affordability

His father paid for his first semester of college, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said Friday, but that after that, he was on his own and took out student loans to pay for his education.

Speaking in The Hub Ballroom to an estimated 200 Mason students, faculty and staff, the two-term Virginia Democrat and former Virginia governor said he wants to ensure college remains affordable for all students. Warner highlighted legislation and other measures he supports that could ease the financial pinch many college students face nationwide amidst soaring tuition costs that can result in crippling student debt.

“We have to figure out how we can slow the growing costs of college education,” Warner said. “We’re not going to be able to stop it, but we can slow it and provide a series of other options.”

That likely came as welcome news to Mason President Anne Holton, whose introduction of Warner noted that more than a third of Mason students are first-generation college students, and almost a third of them are Pell Grant-eligible. Yet Mason boasts among the lowest student default rates in the state and virtually no disparity in graduation rates among both Pell Grant recipients and nonrecipients.

“That doesn’t mean, Sen. Warner, that we don’t have an affordability issue,” said Holton, a longtime friend of Warner, along with her husband, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “We absolutely do because of the students we’re serving and the high quality of work we’re doing with them.”

Virginia’s senior senator noted that student debt is a detriment to the national economy because it often hinders young people from taking entrepreneurial risks, buying homes or even getting married.

“It’s a crushing burden,” Warner said.

Warner cited legislation currently under consideration that would lower student debt by refinancing loans “to a manageable level.” He also cited proposed “know before you go” legislation that would provide better financial guidance to prospective college students in the hopes of creating better informed consumers. He said he also supports increased Pell Grant funding and a more simplified financial aid system.

That’s just what Sarah Kurian had hoped to hear. The junior global affairs major from Reston, Virginia, said that she came to hear Sen. Warner because higher education affordability especially resonates with college students.

“It’s really an important issue for us,” she said. “So it was really nice to hear a politician talking about it.”

Not everybody went away completely satisfied, however. Sophomore government and international politics major Will McLauchlin asked Warner if he’d support legislation that would mandate free college for students and cancellation of all student debt, but didn’t get the answer for which he hoped.

Warner said it wouldn’t be responsible to leave his children a country that couldn’t afford to pay its bills.

“I don’t think there’s anything progressive about promising you free stuff if we can’t pay for it,” Warner said.