Student debt and expensive college tuition rates are a major topic for many 2020 presidential candidates, but from the perspective of a currently enrolled student this issue and the real-life consequences associated with it can feel distant. Outside of the college bubble, student debt is a weight that stands to burden graduates and non-graduates for their entire lives. This is largely the consequence of the federal loans system, which is so convoluted that paying off even smaller loans can become an insurmountable task, as well as a public education system that has failed many students at every step of their journey toward their post-secondary dreams.
Picture a runaway train with about $1.5 trillion dollars loaded on it, hurtling toward a cliff. That is the student debt crisis. Now imagine that there are about 11 million people on the train as well, and they all just saw the conductor turn and look at the crew and tell them that she wants to get off and let someone else deal with the train. It’s not a hard situation to imagine because that just about sums up what Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did last Tuesday when she told the world, including those 11 million graduates who are either in default or delinquency on their loans, that she believes that the Office of Federal Student Aid should be passed off from the Department of Education to some other government entity that doesn’t yet exist.
To default on a loan from the federal government, an individual must not pay that loan for a period of about nine months, during which that individual is in delinquency. Once an individual with a federal loan defaults on it, their credit tanks and the government can begin to recoup its losses through litigation (but this is rare), seizing income tax returns and charging directly from federal benefits. The debt is often passed off to private collection agencies that harass borrowers and usually charge high collection fees on top of the existing debt. Adding insult to injury, even if an individual declares bankruptcy, in all but a few cases, the debt just hangs around until the borrower starts earning again.
Borrowers can avoid default with something called an IDR (Income-Driven Repayment Plan), which allows individuals to pay 10-20% of their disposable income and maintain a base income just above the poverty line. However, these plans are difficult to apply for, easy to fall out of and often do not leave room for expenses like medical bills or daycare. Often times, even if an IDR borrower’s monthly payment is $0, their debt can continue to accrue interest, leaving them in even deeper debt once they are making enough to support regular payments. In essence, if a borrower is unable to effectively pay off their student debt their life is forced into a limbo where the very life that a college education is supposed to make more attainable — a house, a car, providing for family becomes insupportable.
This high-risk system essentially forces many would-be college students to gamble decades of financial well-being on the chance of their post-graduate success. Unfortunately, the students that are the most unaware of the gambles they are making are the least prepared to succeed in a post-secondary environment. According to George D. Kuh, the founding director at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes and Assessment, performing below standards as early as the eighth grade in subjects like reading and mathematics often means that a student is unlikely to be college-ready by the end of high school. Public education as a whole has to be more effective in order for more students to be engaged and successful college graduates, hopefully making enough money to pay off their debt.
For Betsy DeVos to suggest that student debt should not fall under her jurisdiction is ridiculous; the success of federal student aid is contingent upon the success of the public education system. At best her comments reflect a lack of confidence in the system and at worst her comments reflect a lack of belief in the students of American universities. In any case, she has as much of a chance of getting off of this train as they do.