When freshman state Sen. Lindsey Williams, a Democrat from West View, learned Philadelphia Sen. Vincent Hughes was crafting a bill to tackle student debt refinancing, she quickly agreed to circulate a co-sponsorship memo.

Williams, 36, and fellow freshman state Sen. Katie Muth, a 35-year-old Democrat from Montgomery County, are among a new generation of lawmakers driving a discussion about student debt.

A lawyer who worked in the nonprofit world prior to being elected to office, Williams went deeply in debt for law school. The interest on her private student loans is growing, even as she chips away with payments.

“My experience is very different from a lot of people who are holding office today,” Williams said. “I have about $125,000 in student debt. I now owe more than I originally borrowed. When I ran for office, I was attacked because I was a renter.

“But my student loan payment is like a mortgage. It’s double my rent.”

Hughes’ proposal calls for the state to issue up to $1 billion in bonds to refinance Pennsylvanians’ student debt at 4 percent, or about 2 percent less than the going interest rate on federal loans of 6.25 percent. It also calls for the creation of a tax credit to be applied against the state taxes of those paying down student loans and the creation of incentives for employers who help pay down student debts.

Nationally, about 45 million borrowers — one in every four adults in America — owe a total of nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt.

The Higher Education Lending Protection, or HELP, Act would target about 28,000 borrowers struggling with high-interest student debt, Hughes said. That’s a small slice of the estimated 1.8 million Pennsylvanians who carry student loan debt.

Muth said she, too, juggles a large chunk of college debt.

“I have first-hand experience that the cost of borrowing for higher education has become a crisis,” Muth said. “People like me are swamped with high debt paired with high interest rates and limited options.”

Williams said the costs are multiplied across the communities they live in when graduates working two or three jobs to pay off student debt don’t have time for commitments like joining the volunteer fire department or organizations like Big Brother Big Sisters.

Although they have yet to release the specific bill, sponsors estimated the plan could save a student who carries an average amount of debt in Pennsylvania — about $36,000 — more than $10,000 over the span of a 20-year federal loan repayment. A borrower paying on a $50,000 private loan with a 10 percent interest rate would save just over $43,000 over 20 years.

The sponsors are expected to introduce the bill this spring.

Privately, some question whether the initial proposal to place the program within the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which has come under fire for its handling of student loan servicing contracts, is appropriate. Others question whether the HELP Act would be a valuable public service if it does little more than compete for the same borrowers served by varied private refinancing options that already exist.

The proposal calls for increased transparency in college cost disclosure and the creation of a centralized database of borrower options, complete with the cost of those options.

The refinancing proposal is among a handful of similar efforts that have cropped up in other states in recent years.

A spokesman for Hughes said HELP was modeled on a small state program in Connecticut.

Josh Hurlock, assistant director of the Connecticut program known as CHESLA, said it has refinanced student debt for about 150 borrowers over the last three years.

“It’s been a little slower than we expected, but I think the borrowers who have utilized it are happy,” he said.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter .


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