Double Crisis: Student Debt and Democracy

Graduation mortar board cap on one hundred dollar bills concept for the cost of a college and university education
Graduation mortar board cap on one hundred dollar bills concept for the cost of a college and university education

The student debt crisis is completely out of control.

Cumulative student debt in the United States now totals $1.3 trillion, skyrocketing up from around $250 billion in 2003.

Students graduating from college in 2014 had on average roughly $29,000 in debt, up from $1,500 a decade earlier. Many students graduate with debt levels far above that average, sometimes owing in the six figures.

These giant debts often come with high interest rates, and impose needless misery on young adults -- and increasingly on not-so-young adults, as it may take decades to pay off loans. See story after story after story here.

Graduates of for-profit colleges, which comparatively offer very poor value for money, are among those saddled with the worst debt burdens. Three quarters of graduates from for-profit schools attended colleges where graduates' debt typically exceeds $30,000.

There's no excuse for this occurring in the richest nation in history. Not only does the debt cast a dark shadow over the lives of millions of young Americans, it impairs the functioning of the economy. Young adults can't make investments in homes, cars and other big-ticket items, and are deterred from starting new businesses.

Going forward, we could effectively solve the problem by making education at state colleges free, and aggressively helping those currently suffering from crushing loan burdens.

Because abuses are so rife, even more modest measures could make a big difference, including by cracking down on rip-off for-profit colleges, subduing profiteering private lenders, providing sufficient funding for public universities and community colleges, refinancing loans and providing more generous federal grants.

Yet, progress is distressingly slow. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is clamping down on abusive lenders, but lenders are obstructing progress every step of the way. And the Obama Department of Education has had to fight hard for a rule that will require for-profit colleges to demonstrate, as a condition of receiving the federal loans that are their lifeblood, that their graduates are earning enough income to pay down those loans

With solutions readily apparent, why has it been so hard to fix this problem? A big part of the answer is the political power and influence of the predatory university-lending complex.

  • The for-profit schools have spent big on congressional elections, supporting Democrats and Republicans alike, while student loan giant Sallie Mae long was a major congressional election donor until it recently became engulfed in legal troubles.
  • The industry spends big on lobbyists and is heavily reliant on the revolving door (employing lobbyists previously in government employ). Among those who have lobbied for the for-profit schools are former Senator Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. and former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., along with a host of former congressional staff and Department of Education officials.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which makes a fetish of its purported love of entrepreneurship, joined the endless legal challenges to the Obama administration's effort to make for-profit schools prove graduates could get jobs. We have no way to know what kind of money flowed to the Chamber to spur their involvement, if any; but many believe the Chamber is a business advocacy and litigation organization available to rent.
  • The for-profit schools long employed a range of orchestrated, deceptive and "astroturf" (fake grassroots) advocacy strategies to make it seem like there was genuine public opposition to proposals aimed at preventing industry fraud.

Like other major and worsening problems our country faces, we can't wait to fix our democracy before we address the student debt crisis. On the other hand, we're never going to get to genuine solutions if we don't fix our democracy.

That's why groups like Student Debt Crisis are endorsing and turning out people for the historic Democracy Awakening mobilization in Washington, D.C., April 16-18.

"Student Debt Crisis wholeheartedly believe that borrowers, students and young people are facing an uphill battle when it comes to higher education reform due to the influence of billionaires and corporations on our political system," said Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis. "Until we get money out of politics and restore voting rights, our voices will not have the power that we, the people, deserve. It is our hope that once we get rid of the corporate stronghold on our democracy we will see reforms such as free college and some form of student loan forgiveness."

Strike a blow for students, for sanity and for the future. Join the Democracy Awakening.