ASBMB pushes federal agencies to help students struggling with loan debt

Sarina Neote
Nov. 30, 2023

The next generation of scientists faces struggles that include financial instability, increasing job competitiveness and public scrutiny of science — all of which dissuade individuals from pursuing graduate or postdoctoral degrees or running academic labs. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s public affairs department and Public Affairs Advisory Committee are pushing federal agencies, including the Department of Education, to do more to support students.

Emily Pitsch, a biochemistry Ph.D. candidate at the University of Utah is the early-career representative on the ASBMB’s PAAC. “With inflation and sky-rocketing rent prices, buying food and paying rent have been the greatest financial stressors for me and my peers,” Pitsch said. “Before COVID-19, rent and food were affordable enough that I was not absolutely strapped for money, but now I am not only living paycheck-to-paycheck but spending my savings each month just to pay for essentials.”

The Biden administration and some members of Congress are pushing for policy solutions to alleviate the financial stressors of higher education. The ASBMB has endorsed several bills and made policy recommendations to federal agencies that would help students.

Congressional efforts

Two bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives: the Relieving Economic Strain to Enhance American Resilience and Competitiveness in Higher Education and Research, or RESEARCHER, Act and the Lower Obstacles to Achievement Now, or LOAN, Act. If passed, these bills would address financial obstacles to academic success for students pursuing higher education degrees.

Pitsch pointed out that graduate students and postdoctoral researchers commit for many years to positions that pay only stipends.

“A lot can happen that is out of their control,” she said. “With little to no financial cushion, other expenses, such as new tires for your car or a visit to the emergency room, can really add insult to injury ... It’s difficult to spend six or so years making very little money, earn your Ph.D. and then spend several more years making little money and feeling overworked and underpaid.”

Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Va., introduced the RESEARCHER Act to the House in early June to address problems such as this. This bill would direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a set of policy guidelines for federal research agencies to address the financial instability of graduate and postdoctoral researchers and require federal agencies to implement these policies. In addition, this bill would allow the National Science Foundation to award grants focused on collecting data on this issue.

Tom Kimbis is the executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association, which supports the bill. “The nation is increasingly aware of the financial burdens facing postdoctoral scholars, many of whom receive insufficient compensation and no access to retirement plans while facing staggering housing and family costs,” he said. “This untenable situation is exacerbated when starting postdoctoral work saddled with years of student loans.”

Almost 95% of postdocs reported in an NPA survey that their salaries negatively affected their professional or personal lives.

“Increased cost of living, low research stipends and a lack of comprehensive benefits pose serious financial hurdles to our nation’s graduate and postdoctoral researchers, particularly those from low-income families,” McClellan said in a press release. “We must address these issues to continue building a robust STEM workforce, fulfill the legislative priorities set forth in the CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) and Science Act and support America’s global competitiveness.”

The LOAN Act targets student loans by doubling the Pell Grant amount (a needs-based grant program for low-income undergraduate students), improving the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (this program allows certain not-for-profit and government employees to cancel their student loans after 10 years of on-time payments) and lowering interest rates. This bill aims to make educational loans cheaper and easier to pay off.

The ASBMB wrote in a position statement last year when the LOAN Act was introduced, “Student loan debt disproportionally burdens women and people of color.” The statement asserts that this legislation “will expand access to higher education and make it easier for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue careers in the biomedical sciences. The ASBMB is committed to increasing the number of historically excluded scientists in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology.”

Recommendations to the Department of Education

In July, the ASBMB submitted public testimony calling for the Department of Education to remedy the significant financial stress student loans place on the next generation of scientists and to explore and expand student loan forgiveness and repayment programs. Specifically, the society recommended that the Department of Education:

1. Rectify the disproportionate impact of student loans on historically marginalized groups.

2. Expand student loan forgiveness and repayment programs associated with public service, such as the National Institutes of Health loan repayment program.

3. Allow postdoctoral scholars to defer student loan payments across the board.

The Department of Education is developing strategies to alleviate the burden of student loans after the Supreme Court blocked the Biden–Harris three-part student debt relief plan, announced in August 2022. This plan included:

1. Final extension of the student loan repayment pause.

2. Providing targeted debt relief to low- and middle-income families by providing up to $20,000 in relief to Pell Grant recipients and up to $10,000 in relief to non-Pell Grant recipients.

3. Making the student loan system more manageable for current and future borrowers by:

  1. Requiring borrowers to pay no more than 5% of their discretionary income monthly on undergraduate loans.
  2. Raising the amount of income that is considered nondiscretionary and, therefore, is protected from repayment.
  3. Forgiving loan balances after 10 years of payments (instead of 20 years) for borrowers with loan balances of $12,000 or less.
  4. Covering the borrower’s unpaid monthly interest so no borrower’s loan balance will grow as long as they make their monthly payments.

The justices ruled, 6–3, against the plan. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the conservative majority that the government needed direct authorization from Congress to proceed with such a plan.

“The question here is not whether something should be done; it is who has the authority to do it,” Roberts wrote.

Despite this significant setback, the Biden–Harris administration intends to pursue other avenues of providing student loan relief to millions of Americans.

“I believe that the Court’s decision to strike down our student debt relief plan is wrong,” Biden wrote June 30 in a response to the decision. “But I will stop at nothing to find other ways to deliver relief to hard-working middle-class families.”

The ASBMB will continue to press policymakers to enact solutions that will not only alleviate the financial burden of pursuing higher degrees but will also alleviate job competitiveness that is straining the research enterprise.

“What was once a very tight, but livable stipend is quickly approaching unrealistic to live off,” Pitsch said. “But the money issue is not unique to early-career scientists. The competitiveness of federal grants is only increasing, and that is a big deterrent for graduate students and postdocs to continue in academic research.”

Pitsch said high quality, competitive research must be balanced against providing so little money that great scientists are pushed out. “If the U.S. believes that science is a priority and wants to remain competitive in the global research enterprise, I think federal appropriations need to reflect that so young scientists are attracted to and retained in academic research.”

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Sarina Neote

Sarina Neote is ASBMB's director of public affairs.

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