For students of modest means, there’s a simple way to go to college debt-free: Just get into Harvard! As its new president, Lawrence Bacow, recently pointed out to skeptical teens in Pontiac, Mich., wealthy Harvard gives a free ride to students from low- and moderate-income families. It’s one more reason for college applicants to aim high.
All but a few, though, will end up elsewhere in the higher-ed market, where landmines abound — especially now, as the Trump administration wages a quiet war against 20-somethings and in favor of the companies and institutions trying to squeeze money out of them.
A decade after a financial crisis, the economy has improved, and unemployment is down. But American higher education has changed for the worse. Student debt has tripled over the last decade, to a whopping $1.5 trillion. Meanwhile, President Trump’s lieutenants — including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and budget chief Mick Mulvaney — are trying to strip away safeguards protecting students from financial harm.
The worst thing America ever did to college students was to put a numerical value on a degree. A bachelor’s degree, we’ve been told again and again, is worth $1 million more over a lifetime of future earnings than a high school diploma alone.
When there’s value to extract from the dewy-eyed optimism of 18-year-olds, someone will do so — but it may not be the students. In retrospect, the hype about that $1 million salary premium was also an invitation for student loan companies and revenue-hungry schools to swoop in and claim a piece of it.
Aggressive marketers at for-profit schools succeeded in enrolling students but faltered at producing graduates with marketable skills. Among private nonprofits, even weak schools jacked up tuition because they could. Meanwhile, to cover employee health care and retiree pension costs in the depths of the recession, state legislatures steered money away from public universities, which raised tuition and fees to compensate. This was only possible because Washington had opened a spigot of easy loans, even for students enrolling in schools with lousy records. It’s all cool — the kids will pay it off someday.
Eventually, the Obama administration tried to stem the most irresponsible lending, imposing safeguards that DeVos now wants to undo. She’s trying to declaw the so-called borrower-defense rule, which offers debt forgiveness to students whose colleges misled them about costs and educational outcomes. Fortunately, DeVos is losing a court battle with the attorneys general of Massachusetts and more than a dozen other states, who’ve sued to keep the old rule in place. But she’s still working to gut a rule that withholds funds from for-profit schools whose students can’t get jobs.
As for Mulvaney, who’s also the acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he’s made it clear that, “from a financial standpoint and a moral standpoint,” the burden is all on student borrowers. “If we teach an entire generation of people,” he told CNBC this month, “that the first major loan they take out, they don’t have to pay back, I’m worried about the long-term impact of that.”
The entire premise of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, though, is that information is asymmetrical — that inexperienced borrowers don’t always know, and aren’t entirely culpable, when signing onto loans that are sure to blow up in their faces. But to Mulvaney’s zombie consumer bureau, it doesn’t matter if schools overpromise and underdeliver; people who, at age 18, took out loans that should never have been offered are morally obliged to pay up anyway. No wonder the agency’s student loan ombudsman recently quit in protest.
Trump’s scandal-a-day presidency — the unhinged tweets, the sex scandals, the Russia revelations, the personal enrichment of top aides and the president himself — has a way of distracting people from the tectonic implications of the policies his administration is pursuing.
The student-debt mess is keeping debt-ridden younger Americans in a state of limbo. They’re less likely to buy homes, get married, and have kids — all of which makes them less likely to vote as well. Since polls show the youngest Americans are the wariest about Trump, screwing them financially suits his political purposes just fine.
But to promote a smarter, more successful society, the cost of higher education can’t come entirely at the expense of the students now enrolled. The most important duty that every generation has is to fertilize the soil in which future generations grow. Harvard only gives out so many scholarships. But instead of tending the land, the Trump administration is strip-mining it, to the country’s peril.