On May 31st, president Barack Obama strolled into the bright sunlight of the Rose Garden, covered from head to toe in the slime and ooze of the Benghazi and IRS scandals. In a Karl Rove-ian masterstroke, he simply pretended they weren't there and changed the subject.
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The topic? Student loans. Unless Congress took action soon, he warned, the relatively low 3.4 percent interest rates on key federal student loans would double. Obama knew the Republicans would make a scene over extending the subsidized loan program, and that he could corner them into looking like obstructionist meanies out to snatch the lollipop of higher education from America's youth. "We cannot price the middle class or folks who are willing to work hard to get into the middle class," he said sternly, "out of a college education."
Flash-forward through a few months of brinkmanship and name-calling, and not only is nobody talking about the IRS anymore, but the Republicans and Democrats are snuggled in bed together on the student-loan thing, having hatched a quick-fix plan on July 31st to peg interest rates to Treasury rates, ensuring the rate for undergrads would only rise to 3.86 percent for the coming year.
Though this was just the thinnest of temporary solutions – Congressional Budget Office projections predicted interest rates on undergraduate loans under the new plan would still rise as high as 7.25 percent within five years, while graduate loans could reach an even more ridiculous 8.8 percent – the jobholders on Capitol Hill couldn't stop congratulating themselves for their "rare" "feat" of bipartisan cooperation. "This proves Washington can work," clucked House Republican Luke Messer of Indiana, in a typically autoerotic assessment of the work done by Beltway pols like himself who were now freed up for their August vacations.
Not only had the president succeeded in moving the goal posts on his spring scandals, he'd teamed up with the Republicans to perpetuate a long-standing deception about the education issue: that the student-loan controversy is now entirely about interest rates and/or access to school loans.
Obama had already set himself up as a great champion of student rights by taking on banks and greedy lenders like Sallie Mae. Three years earlier, he'd scored what at the time looked like a major victory over the Republicans with a transformative plan to revamp the student-loan industry. The 2010 bill mostly eliminated private banks and lenders from the federal student-loan business. Henceforth, the government would lend college money directly to students, with no middlemen taking a cut. The president insisted the plan would eliminate waste and promised to pass the savings along to students in the form of more college and university loans, including $36 billion in new Pell grants over 10 years for low-income students. Republican senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander bashed the move as "another Washington takeover."
The thing is, none of it – not last month's deal, not Obama's 2010 reforms – mattered that much. No doubt, seeing rates double permanently would genuinely have sucked for many students, so it was nice to avoid that. And yes, it was theoretically beneficial when Obama took banks and middlemen out of the federal student-loan game. But the dirty secret of American higher education is that student-loan interest rates are almost irrelevant. It's not the cost of the loan that's the problem, it's the principal – the appallingly high tuition costs that have been soaring at two to three times the rate of inflation, an irrational upward trajectory eerily reminiscent of skyrocketing housing prices in the years before 2008.
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How is this happening? It's complicated. But throw off the mystery and what you'll uncover is a shameful and oppressive outrage that for years now has been systematically perpetrated against a generation of young adults. For this story, I interviewed people who developed crippling mental and physical conditions, who considered suicide, who had to give up hope of having children, who were forced to leave the country, or who even entered a life of crime because of their student debts.
They all take responsibility for their own mistakes. They know they didn't arrive at gorgeous campuses for four golden years of boozing, balling and bong hits by way of anybody's cattle car. But they're angry, too, and they should be. Because the underlying cause of all that later-life distress and heartache – the reason they carry such crushing, life-alteringly huge college debt – is that our university-tuition system really is exploitative and unfair, designed primarily to benefit two major actors.
First in line are the colleges and universities, and the contractors who build their extravagant athletic complexes, hotel-like dormitories and God knows what other campus embellishments. For these little regional economic empires, the federal student-loan system is essentially a massive and ongoing government subsidy, once funded mostly by emotionally vulnerable parents, but now increasingly paid for in the form of federally backed loans to a political constituency – low- and middle-income students – that has virtually no lobby in Washington.
Next up is the government itself. While it's not commonly discussed on the Hill, the government actually stands to make an enormous profit on the president's new federal student-loan system, an estimated $184 billion over 10 years, a boondoggle paid for by hyperinflated tuition costs and fueled by a government-sponsored predatory-lending program that makes even the most ruthless private credit-card company seem like a "Save the Panda" charity. Why is this happening? The answer lies in a sociopathic marriage of private-sector greed and government force that will make you shake your head in wonder at the way modern America sucks blood out of its young.
In the early 2000s, a thirtysomething scientist named Alan Collinge seemed to be going places. He had graduated from USC in 1999 with a degree in aerospace engineering and landed a research job at Caltech. Then he made a mistake: He asked for a raise, didn't get it, lost his job and soon found himself underemployed and with no way to repay the roughly $38,000 in loans he'd taken out to get his degree.
Collinge's creditor, Sallie Mae, which originally had been a quasi-public institution but, in the late Nineties, had begun transforming into a wholly private lender, didn't answer his requests for a forbearance or a restructuring. So in 2001, he went into default. Soon enough, his original $38,000 loan had ballooned to more than $100,000 in debt, thanks to fees, penalties and accrued interest. He had a job as a military contractor, but he lost it when his employer ran a credit check on him. His whole life was now about his student debt.
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Collinge became so upset that, while sitting on a buddy's couch in Tacoma, Washington, one night in 2005 and nursing a bottle of Jack Daniel's, he swore that he'd see Sallie Mae on 60 Minutes if it was the last thing he did. In what has to be a first in the history of drunken bullshitting, it actually happened. "Lo and behold, I ended up being featured on 60 Minutes within about a year," he says. In 2006, he got to tell his debt story to Lesley Stahl for a piece on Sallie Mae's draconian lending tactics that, curiously enough, Sallie Mae itself refused to be interviewed for.
From that point forward, Collinge – who founded the website StudentLoanJustice.org – became what he calls "a complaint box for the industry." He heard thousands of horror stories from people like himself, and over the course of many years began to wonder more and more about one particular recurring theme, what he calls "the really significant thing – the sticker price." Why was college so expensive?
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