Fact check: What does Grandma know about student loans?

A new ad from Senate Majority PAC says Thom Tillis is "sticking it" to young people, making them pay more to repay college loans. The new spot references the Republican state House speaker's opposition to legislation defeated in the U.S. Senate this summer.

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Still image from SMP's "Grandma" ad
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Matt is a "nice boy" researching the Senate race for his tea-drinking granny, but it's our hipster young man who gets schooled on state House Speaker Thom Tillis' student loan positions in Senate Majority PAC's latest ad.

The Democratic-backing group is spending $1 million to air the ad over the next 10 days across North Carolina, according to spokesman Ty Matsdorf. Senate Majority PAC is a so-called Super PAC, able to raise and spend unlimited money from wealthy donors but prohibited from coordinating directly with candidates. 

Matt opens the commercial with some claims that should be familiar to anyone paying attention to the race between Tillis and U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, the Democratic incumbent.

The Republican state House speaker "supports a plan that would end Medicare as we know it." That Medicare claim is based on Tillis' praise for a budget put forward by U.S. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican. We gave that claim our first formal yellow light, while Politifact rated it as "Mostly False" and The Washington Post's Fact Checker gave it two Pinocchios

For the purposes of this fact check, we're setting aside the Medicare claim and are more interested in what Grandma has to say.

"Did you know Tillis won't support a bill to let students refinance their college loans? So, you're going to pay more," says Grandma. "Yup. Tillis is sticking it to you, too." 

The Question: What is Tillis' position on student loans, and is he, ahem, "sticking it" to young Matt? 
The Backup: Senate Majority PAC points to one news story as establishing Tillis' position on student loans. In that June 11 News & Observer report, Tillis initially refused to comment on a federal student loan bill that was defeated in the U.S. Senate. He then issued a statement critical of the bill.

"The bill has many glaring issues, like the fact it significantly increases the national debt, doesn’t make college more affordable and does nothing to create jobs for the millions of recent graduates who are unemployed because of the failed economic policies of Kay Hagan and President Obama," Tillis wrote.

Push Back: Tillis' campaign echoed those remarks Monday. 

"Thom knows firsthand what it’s like to not be able to afford college, having spent years working before he earned his degree," said Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin. "Thom opposed the bill because it was a political stunt which added to the national debt and did nothing to make college more affordable or help college graduates find jobs after graduating."

It's worth noting for both sides of the argument that Tillis' opposition was immaterial to the bill's fate. While as state House speaker, Tillis controls the flow of legislation in his chamber, he had no influence over the movement of this bill. 

About the Bill: The bill in question would have allowed those who borrowed using federally-backed student loans to refinance those loans if the current interest rates were lower than the rates at which they borrowed. This was a plan put forward by Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and while it garnered 58 votes in the 100-member U.S. Senate, it failed to get the 60 needed to break a GOP filibuster of the legislation. 
According to data compiled by the liberal Generation Progress and analyzed by U.S. News and World Report, roughly 678,000 borrowers, or 64 percent of North Carolinians with student loan debt, would have been able to take advantage of such a program.
Republicans criticized the program because, among other reasons, they said it would cost the federal government money and therefore increase the national debt. The bill actually offset costs by raising taxes on those earning more than $1 million annually. 
While the Warren bill would certainly be a better deal for borrowers, it's worth noting there are some programs offered by private institutions to consolidate and refinance student loan debt. 
Additional Notes: Rating this student loan claim is difficult for some of the same reasons that the "ending Medicare as we know it" claim aggravated fact checkers. Tillis' campaign hasn't really developed much of a position on either front. On Medicare, Tillis' campaign website mentions the health insurance program for the elderly almost exclusively in the context of criticizing Hagan's work on the program rather than outlining his own position. 
Similarly, it is tough sledding for anyone looking for what Tillis' affirmative position on student loans might be. The "Meet Thom" section of his website, which outlines Tillis' basic policy positions, speaks only to K-12 education, not colleges and universities or student loans.
For Hagan's part, she voted for the Warren bill, but her website is no more specific when it comes to student loans, saying only that she is "leading the effort to keep federal Stafford loan rates from doubling." However, she has been a player in the student loan debate in Washington, D.C., backing the Democratic majority's efforts. 
Yellow light: Slow down and use caution. The statement contains a minor but significant factual error or is lacking important context. You may also see a yellow light when the speaker in question tried to get something right but made an honest mistake that misinterprets a piece of data.
The Call: Just to be clear, we're not rating the dodgy "end Medicare as we know it" claim again, and instead, this fact check focuses on the student loan claim.
On that score, we teetered on the edge of giving this ad a green light on our fact-checking scale. It is true to say that Tillis opposed the bill at the time it passed and reiterated that opposition Monday. 

However, Grandma is overstating Tillis' influence over this bill when she tells her grandson Tillis' opposition means "you're going to pay more." Tillis may be opposed to the bill, but as a state level official, he had little to no say in the matter. As with the Medicare claim, it's hard to say what Tillis' position is on student loans, but to say he's actively "sticking it" to anybody on this point is a stretch and earns the ad a yellow light.


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