Let’s All Sweat Student Debt

Perhaps you’re wondering whatever happened to Joe Biden’s plan to reduce student loan debt.

No? That’s sort of depressing. You’ve given up on Washington ever making even the tiniest twitch of progress? Hey, I’d like to point out that right now in Congress, both parties are working on legislation to keep the government in operation. And they’ve named a post office in Wayzata, Minn. Hope springs eternal.

And let’s be fair. Think about passage of Biden’s big infrastructure bill. A heartwarming reminder that even in the darkest of times, our legislators in Washington are up for highway repair. So bipartisan it got a total of 32 Republican votes.

But about student loan forgiveness: It was one of our president’s major non-road-reconstruction campaign promises. Voters were undoubtedly listening, given that Americans owe a grand total of about $1.5 trillion in student debt.

“Whenever I go to community meetings, it always comes up,” said Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader. “Young and middle-aged and even some elderly. It tortures them.”

Right now, as with almost everything else in life, we’re in a pause. Federal loans account for more than 90 percent of the student loan debt, and thanks to Biden, the next payment deadline has been pushed back to May 1. That saved you — well, the cosmic you — $5 billion a month in interest alone.

Unfortunately, Biden has claimed that doing anything permanent, like his much-repeated campaign promise to cancel significant amounts of debt, requires legislation. Not everybody agrees. “The president can do this with a flick of his pen,” said Schumer.

That’d certainly be easier. Getting the Senate to approve anything is a problem for lawmakers whose post offices already have names. Even optimistic folks — presuming there are any left in Washington — had to be disheartened this week when Jill Biden admitted that free community college, her own signature initiative, is down the drain.

At least temporarily. Think positive — you never know. The Democrats might sweep the fall elections. Mitch McConnell might have a spectacular conversion in which an angel appears and tells him to forgo the filibuster. (Maybe an angel who’s $350,000 in hock to Seraphim Graduate School for Wing Development.)

Meanwhile, opponents of student debt forgiveness are sitting tight. Some House Republicans called it “an affront to the millions of borrowers who responsibly repaid their loan balances.” Others argue that the whole point of the loans is to prepare people for better-paying careers, which would make it easy to meet the payments.

Hey, maybe Congress could just restrict the loan forgiveness to folks who aren’t making much money.

Nah. Republicans really, really hate bills that are targeted at folks who aren’t making much money.

I’m sorry, Mr. President. These are federal loans, and you definitely gave the impression you could wipe them off the books yourself. If you weren’t sure the public wanted it to happen, you wouldn’t have mentioned the idea approximately every five minutes during the campaign.

But while we’re on the subject, let’s look at another part of the loan problem — who’s getting the money. About 12 percent of the graduates of public four-year schools still owe more than $40,000. The percentage is somewhat higher for private schools, but the real whopper is over in the for-profit sector. Nearly half of the graduates of for-profit schools are trying to live with very high debt levels, and we have not even begun to talk about the multitudinous number of poor kids who got sucked in by an ad promising to set them on a career in high-tech-something and wound up with no degree, no career and a sea of red ink.

It’s glory days for the folks who run places like Grand Canyon University or Strayer University. For-profits are reveling in the Covid culture. “I hate to call anybody a winner in this crisis,” Jeffrey M. Silber, managing director of a financial services company, told The Times. But, he added, for-profit colleges sure appear to be getting a pandemic prize.

People are trapped at home, with nothing to do but clean out closets and watch luge races. Starting on the path to an online degree and a new career must certainly sound tempting.

No, wait. Really, stick to the curling match. For-profit schools are generally a very bad plan. An estimated 43 percent of the students who started attending one in 2004 defaulted on their loans.

While the for-profits are very vocal about enrollees’ prospects, they tend to be less than forthcoming about their actual success rates. For instance, Capella University has run ads promising you can earn a bachelor’s degree in as little as a year. Alas, in the real world only 11 percent of its students manage to earn one in eight.

And by the way, around two-thirds of the people who graduate from regular community colleges leave without any debt. The figure at for-profit schools, at the most optimistic assessment, is around 17 percent. Come back, Jill Biden!

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