©Copyright 2012, The Oklahoman
WASHINGTON — They differ on many issues, but the Republican and Democratic candidates for the congressional seat in Tulsa have at least one thing in common: They both owe a lot of money to the federal government for their education.
Republican Jim Bridenstine owes the U.S. Education Department between $100,000 and $250,000 for a loan for graduate school, according to a financial disclosure report filed earlier this year.
Democrat John Olson owes between $100,000 and $250,000 to the Education Department, and his wife owes an amount in the same range, according to Olson's financial disclosure report; Olson owes up to $150,000 more in private student loans.
These days, it is not unusual to have student loan debt. A study released last week by the Pew Research Center says a record 19 percent of U.S. households had student loan debt in 2010; the figure was 40 percent for households headed by someone younger than 35. Olson is 35, and Bridenstine is 37.
The amount Olson and Bridenstine owe is extraordinary. According to the Pew report, 95 percent of the households with student debt owe less than $93,000.
In Congress, Olson and Bridenstine would be in a small club of lawmakers with student loan debt. According to a report by Bloomberg in June, only four current members reported student debt this year on their financial disclosure forms. Only one, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, reported debt over $100,000.
The financial disclosure forms required of federal candidates and members of Congress allow for income, assets and debts to be reported in broad categories, so it's not clear how much more than $100,000 Bridenstine and Olson owe. And neither candidate would give a specific amount last week.
Referring to the combined student loan debt he and his wife carry, Olson said: “It's a lot, and it's something we'll have to deal with … There are things you certainly shave off your budget to make ends meet.”
Olson said the loans helped him pay for a master's degree and law degree at the University of Tulsa in a program that allowed him to receive both in 3½ years. A U.S. Army veteran and a member of the Military Police Corps, Olson used the G.I. Bill to pay for much of his undergraduate work, he said.
He now runs his own human resources consulting company. Olson and his wife reported combined income of about $111,000 on their 2011 tax return.
Citing figures regarding the increased incomes that accompany bachelor's and graduate degrees, Olson said pursuing higher education is “an investment in yourself. You are going to get a return on your investment.”
Backed by the Tea Party, Bridenstine scored an upset victory over incumbent Rep. John Sullivan in the Republican primary in June. Bridenstine was not available to discuss his student loan debt in the latter three days of last week, said his campaign manager, Gabe Sherman.
“The principal amount of Jim's student loan is a private matter known by Jim and his wife,” Sherman said. “They would prefer not to share that information. He makes payments on his loan and has never missed a payment.”
Bridenstine, a pilot in the U.S. Navy Reserve, received his Master of Business Administration degree from Cornell University. He reported on his financial disclosure form that his loan was for graduate school. Sherman said Bridenstine, who got his undergraduate degree at Rice University, did not use the G.I. bill to cover any of his education costs.
On the financial disclosure form filed earlier this year, Bridenstine listed 2011 income of nearly $36,000. Sherman said Bridenstine also earned roughly $42,000 in military pay that is exempted from disclosure on the forms.
A seat in the U.S. House would give the winner of the 1st District race a salary of $174,000. However, members of Congress can't participate in a program that allows some congressional staff members to receive help paying student loans.