Getachew Kassa is the type of person the Student Loan Forgiveness Act is supposed to help.

Kassa graduated in 2010 from the University of Oregon with a degree in political science and $30,000 in debt from student loans.

“I didn’t fully realize the amount of debt I would own after graduation and how that would affect my life,” said Kassa, now the legislative director for the United States Student Association, an organization advocating expanded access to higher education. He said his debt has postponed plans to return to school.

Around 20 students and recent college graduates on Thursday joined Robert Applebaum, who created an online petition on, and Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-Mich., the sponsor of the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, to call for passage of the bill and deliver to Congress the more than 1 million signatures Applebaum’s petition has collected.

Clarke’s bill, introduced March 8, would limit borrowers’ payment of loan debt at 10 percent of discretionary income, or household income that exceeds 150 percent of the poverty line, to 10 years. The federal government would then write off the remainder. The bill would also make permanent the 3.4 percent federal student loan rate. The government would also convert all private student loans into federal loans and set interest rates at 3.4 percent (the current interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans).

Total U.S. student loan debt hit the $1 trillion mark earlier this year, according to FinAid. It surpassed total credit card debt in 2010. Student debt increased as college tuitions, on average, have outpaced inflation for years. As states tightened their education budgets, in-state tuition for four-year public universities increased 8.3 percent for the 2011-12 school year. The College Board said last year that the amount families pay after financial aid and tax credits increased by 1.4 percent in the past five yearsfor public universities.

Clarke’s bill aims to address some of this problem. “It forgives loans conditioned on the mandatory repayment of that loan for 10 years, according to your income,” Clarke said. “That’s pretty conservative if you think about it. It’s very reasonable, it’s conservative, it’s financially doable. But it must happen now.”

“Financially doable” is a matter of faith, however; the Congressional Budget Office has not scored the bill yet, so the costs remain unclear.

The bill’s proponents present it as an economic stimulus. “Help our graduates—the most ambitious, disciplined, motivated people around—to be able to start their own business and create jobs,” Clarke said. “People will be able to do that when they don’t have this debt to pay off anymore.” One student held up a sign that read, “Fix the economy, forgive student debt.”

Applebaum worked on the bill as a part-time legislative assistant to Clarke last year, after he saw a speech by Clarke on the House floor and reached out to him. Applebaum, who graduated from Fordham Law School in 1998 and worked for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, said he has been paying $500 a month to pay back his student loans. His interest in the issue, he said, was sparked by debate over the stimulus bill on—he remembers the exact date—Jan. 29, 2009.

“They were talking about more trickle-down economics, corporate welfare and tax cuts,” Applebaum said. “And here we are, nine days after the inauguration of the man ushered in on a platform of hope and change, and we’re doing the same thing over and over again, so I got really mad.”

He took to Facebook and wrote a note that soon went viral. “My only point was, if you want to stimulate the economy, here’s a better way,” he said.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek published a story about Applebaum and his work in March 2009. Applebaum has since created a website, contributed a piece to the New York Times debate blog and discussed student loans in a PBS NewsHour special. His poll is the most popular one on, an online campaign website run by the liberal policy advocacy group

Clarke said he realized last summer, amid the debt-ceiling discussions, that student debt relief mattered to constituents.

“I went back home and started asking people about the debt crisis,” Clarke said. “Everybody said, yeah, there is a debt crisis. But no one ever mentioned the federal debt. They’re talking about the student loan debt that the graduates had to take out, that their parents had to take out.”

Kassa called the amount of student loan debt “a crisis.”

“More and more of us are struggling with debt we cannot pay within a reasonable amount of time,” Kassa said in prepared remarks. “This has caused us to postpone continuing our education beyond a bachelor’s degree, buying a house and even getting married.”

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Minjae Park

Minjae Park is an intern at the Washington Monthly.