WSJ Editorial Blames Progressives For Student Debt, Claims Government Loans Send “Deadbeats” To College

Wall Street Journal editorial on student debt takes aim at Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's New College Compact college affordability plan, arguing that Democrats have “encouraged student debt” in order to win over young voters with debt relief proposals. In addition to favoring fewer opportunities for low-income students, the board's argument ignores the flawed and sometimes corrupt private lending system that led the government to reform the student loan process, and the recession-driven policies supported by both parties that have sent higher-ed costs skyrocketing.

The August 21 WSJ editorial characterized Clinton's recently-announced student debt relief proposal as part of a larger “arc of progressive politics” that first causes problems, and then presents voters with solutions. The short editorial - which is also short on facts - is worth quoting in its entirety (emphasis added):

The arc of progressive politics these days seems to be hoping to benefit from proposing policies to solve the problems their previous policies have created--and hoping nobody notices the cause and effect.

Hillary Clinton and the other Democratic presidential candidates have been proposing new ways for college students to reduce or write-off their student loans. The goal is to win over millennial voters with more taxpayer largesse, while slowly turning higher education into one more universal federal entitlement. Mrs. Clinton's proposal would cost a hefty $350 billion over 10 years, by her own no doubt conservative estimate.

What Democrats don't say is that such taxpayer generosity wouldn't be necessary if they hadn't done so much to encourage students to load up on taxpayer-guaranteed debt. The Education Department reported this week that some 6.9 million Americans with student loans hadn't made a single payment in at least 360 days. That's up 6%, or 400,000 borrowers, in a year.

The Obama Administration took over the student loan market in 2010, easing terms and expanding benefits. Now that the bills are coming due in (sic) more deadbeats, Democrats hope to benefit again by handing the tab to taxpayers. They nail you coming and going. [Wall Street Journal8/21/15]

The editorial lays the blame for the national student debt crisis at the feet of the Obama Administration, which it says “took over the student loan market” in 2010. That's a reference to The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, which eliminated the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, a lending system that dates back to 1965 and offered government-guaranteed student loans through private and nonprofit lenders. In its place, the government created the present-day Direct Loan program, which cuts out private lenders and issues loans directly to students (private lending continued without the government's backing).

Among other things, the 2010 education loan overhaul lowered interest rates for certain borrowers, upped maximum award amounts for Pell grants, expanded access to both income-based repayment and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan by allowing borrowers to consolidate into loans eligible for these programs, and made income-based repayment significantly more affordable. The Congressional Budget Office projected that the new, simplified loan program would save the government $68 billion over 11 years.

The WSJ editorial made no mention of the 2010 law's cost savings for the government or students, or the circumstances that laid the groundwork for the reform. Before 2010, the government was paying millions to private lenders to subsidize interest rates on federally-backed loans. In 2004, it was discovered that private lenders were exploiting a legal loophole and overcharging the government for those subsidies. In 2007, several lenders also admitted to engaging in illegal deals with colleges to encourage students to borrow from them.

Those revelations shook public and policymakers' confidence in the whole system of privately-issued, taxpayer-backed student loans and helped set the stage for the 2010 reforms.

In August, 2012 -- two years after the Direct Loan program began -- the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a report that showed how private student loans, which often come with variable interest rates and limited repayment options, expose borrowers to greater credit risk and higher costs. Despite that damning finding, the Republican Party's 2012 party platform called for an end to direct lending and a return to the FFEL-style lending system that had allowed private lenders to overcharge taxpayers and exposed student borrowers to higher debt costs.

Another of The Journal's claims -- that progressive policies have created a cycle of “entitlement” -- is undermined by the fact that bipartisan measures have increased pressure on students to borrow ever-higher amounts of money to pay for college. State-level budget cuts to higher education in the wake of the 2007 recession, for example, have been a proven cause of higher college costs across the board, especially at community colleges. An in-depth analysis of state higher education disinvestment from 2007-2012 by the Center for American Progress found that 29 of 50 states had lowered their direct funding of public institutions. By Media Matters' count,  legislative leadership in those 29 states was almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, proving the fallacy of the Journal's claim that progressive policies are responsible for driving up higher-ed costs.

Finally, the Journal's claim that expanding access to student loans leads to more “deadbeats” looking to taxpayers to foot their loan bills echoes a common conservative talking point that says expanding access to higher education through accessible student loan programs results in unqualified (read: undeserving) students going off to college.

That argument ignores the reality that taking on some measure of student debt is inevitable for most Americans, regardless of what kind of school they attend. In 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, nearly 70 percent of graduates of public or private nonprofit schools had loan debt. Tuition costs are rising quickly at every type of higher education institution, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics: private colleges, state universities, vocational schools, community colleges, even professional certification programs. And the growing debt burden is shouldered disproportionately by low-income, black and Hispanic borrowers, many of whom lack the adequate financial resources to avoid borrowing.

The bottom line is that any argument against the loan simplification measures and expanded student aid established in 2010 is an argument to limit college opportunities, which will inevitably hit low-income, minority students hardest. The Wall Street Journal's elitist dismissal of the serious problem of student debt, and its partisan argument against worthwhile policy solutions, reinforces a stratified system of higher education that limits opportunities for deserving Americans.