When Jennifer O’Mara left West Chester University in 2011, the South Philly native was the first in her family to earn a college diploma.
She left with more than a dual degree in history and education. She left with a $36,000 debt.
This after working three jobs in college. This after, at age 13, moving with her mom and younger brothers to Delaware County. This after her father, a Philly firefighter, committed gun suicide, and her mom took a job as a school bus driver in Upper Darby.
So, not a smooth or routine path to and through higher education.
Yet, as they say, she persisted.
Got an entry-level gig in the University of Pennsylvania’s development office, got promoted, used a small, affordable loan and Penn’s employee tuition benefits to earn a master’s degree in history and English by stretching the program from two years to four-and-a-half.
Oh, and she supplemented her income along the way by keeping one of her college jobs — at a West Chester pizza shop.
Now, 29, she’s a freshman state House member, a Democrat who last year unseated Delaware County Republican incumbent Alex Charlton. And she’s intent on easing the way for others who need educational loans.
She’s part of a group of new, young lawmakers uninterested in the status quo.
And her $36,000 debt? Should sound familiar to college grads.
It’s around the average owed in Pennsylvania, an amount that’s climbed in recent years and that ranks us as a national leader. Or, more precisely, a national loser.
Last year, we were number one. The latest data compiled by Forbes in February put us second, with an average student debt of $36,854 — behind only Connecticut at $38,510.
This, of course, makes sense.
We rank low in what people want, such as good government or infrastructure. We rank high in what people don’t want, such as tick-borne disease or student debt.
O’Mara is battling back on that last thing.
She’s prime mover of a new bipartisan House Student Debt Caucus because, she argues, the legislature needs to get aggressive. So far, 20-plus lawmakers have signed on, nine of them freshman, R’s and D’s.
It’s a national problem, $1.5 trillion worth, with Pennsylvania at its center. And others are in the fight right here.
State Treasurer Joe Torsella calls the state’s student debt “a moral failing.” He’s pushed through a philanthropically-funded savings program, Keystone Scholars, for every child born in the state, to help avoid or reduce student debt.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro is suing the giant student-loan servicer Navient for alleged predatory conduct and deceptive practices.
O’Mara plans to meet with both, and to urge still greater focus on student debt. “There aren’t many bipartisan issues in Harrisburg,” O’Mara tells me, “When I found one, I decided to run with it.”
The plan is to improve financial literacy in high schools and colleges, go hard at predatory lenders and at cost-drivers of college fees and tuition. And to make recommendations to the full House by the end of the year.
“But,” says O’Mara, “us talking about this in a room only goes so far. We’re planning a series of roundtable talks with students at different schools this fall.”
O’Mara recently pressed for action in an Inquirer op-ed piece picked up by other newspapers and news sites. She says it brought strong responses, showing a generational divide: lots of support from young people, skepticism from others.
“We got calls saying this is all about taking responsibility and working for what you want, people saying, `Stop drinking lattes and eating avocado toast and go out and work your way through school like I did.’”
Problem is, she notes, times have changed. The minimum wage hasn’t moved while college costs rose exponentially.
By 2018, Forbes reports, college costs were increasing nearly eight times faster than wages.
The result, O’Mara wrote in her op-ed piece, is student debt that destroys credit, makes home-buying impossible and “turns hopes of career success and financial stability into a nightmare of struggling for decades.”
Pennsylvania is at the peak of the problem. It should lead the way in fixing it.
That means new, aggressive efforts. Which, given the nature of our legislature, means heavy lifting by new, aggressive lawmakers.