By LeeAnn Hall
The U.S. Senate held a vote recently to bring up legislation allowing student debt holders to refinance old loans at lower current interest rates. The motion to debate the “Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act” (S 2432) garnered a 56-38 majority but fell short of the 60 votes needed to open debate.
Republicans cast 37 of the 38 “no” votes. Only three Republicans joined 53 Democrats and Independents in voting to debate the bill.
For members of the college and high school classes of 2014, and for past graduates, this effort to tackle the student debt issue is sorely needed. For whether their degrees are in math, science, history or English, our graduates are coming out of college schooled in something else entirely: the crushing weight of student loan debt.
With outstanding student debt now topping $1.2 trillion, 40 million Americans are facing the consequences of our failing national commitment to higher education. This situation poses a threat to America’s economic vitality and its promise of opportunity.
The Federal Reserve reports that growing student loan debt is holding borrowers back from buying homes and cars. This is bad news for an economy still trying to get its mojo back since the Great Recession.
And student loans have turned into a big business for the U.S. Department of Education, which reportedly made a profit of $41.3 billion from federal student loans last year. If the agency were a corporation, it would be one of the most profitable in the world.
It’s time to address the student debt crisis and the toll it’s taking on the economy. Allowing refinancing will save borrowers thousands of dollars in interest payments. That will free up disposable income, boost consumer spending and strengthen the economy.
However, to fix the overall student debt picture, we need to think even bigger — big enough to put “free college” back on the national agenda. Does free college sounds like magical thinking? It’s more like a walk down memory lane.
Fifty years ago in California, tuition-free college wasn’t pie in the sky, it was state policy. In 1964, a world-class education in the public University of California system came with free tuition and fees totaling just $220 for the year.
At the 1964 minimum wage of $1.25 an hour, you could earn $220 in 4 1/2 weeks of full-time work. That means a University of California student 50 years ago could earn enough to pay for a year’s college costs by flipping burgers for a month in the summer.
Today, even at in-state rates, with tuition and fees averaging $8,893 for the 2013-14 school year, it would take seven months of full-time work at the $7.25 federal minimum wage to make that much.
What’s changed since 1964? A massive public disinvestment from higher education has shifted the costs of college onto students and families. Just in the past few years, state funding per student was cut by an average of 27 percent nationwide.
Private interests have filled the void, transforming college finance into a vehicle for financial industry profits. Private lenders have moved aggressively into the student loan market, offering loans with interest rates in the double digits. The explosion of student loan debt also has fueled a burgeoning student loan debt collection industry.
Translation: Wall Street has turned our college students into a new cash cow.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If we’re serious about giving our children and grandchildren real freedom — freedom from student debt — we need to reverse the trend of public disinvestment, put a stop to private profiteering, and recommit to free college in America. Then we need to marshal the resources to make it happen. Ending offshore tax giveaways to multinational corporations and millionaires would be one way to get there.
Is solving the student debt crisis going to take a fight, given the political clout of the financial interests that are making big money off the status quo? Of course. But it’s a fight worth having.
Let’s make college in America what it should be: a free, shared vehicle for building an educated people, not another costly way for special interests to take us for a ride.
— LeeAnn Hall is executive director of the Alliance for a Just Society, a national research, policy and organizing network that advances state and national campaigns for economic and social equity.