Durango Herald: Student-loan fix starts with feds | Opinion

What’s a college education worth? It’s difficult to match a price with what we learn and who we become from this experience. Yet, we know when the price is too high.

That’s the case for more than 43 million people under the weight of federal student loan debt. For many, it’s financially — and soul — crushing. The situation is often “underwater,” the real estate term that means a property is worth less than the money owed on the loan. Students were sold a dream of upward economic mobility. Guidance counselors and financial advisers were cheerleaders of this dream, offering the idea of good debt, which meant graduates could earn it all — and more — right back. Now, it’s become the shadow side of college.

These loans with a range of interest rates, some into the double digits, turned out to be as speculative as subprime mortgages. The sad irony is that this debt prevents people from buying homes — the best way for Americans to build wealth — and inches them closer toward poverty. This dream has turned out to be a bad one.

Now there’s talk of debt relief, some loan forgiveness, a full-on bailout or doing nothing at all. Before selecting an answer to the problem, we have to consider whether this is a collective responsibility or a personal responsibility? We say it’s both, although we lean heavily toward help for those who found themselves under unrealistic debt.

The reason being, it’s almost impossible for former students to repay these loans, even after receiving degrees and going to work. Wages have not increased enough to meet the cost of living. Some form of relief or forgiveness would help us get back on track, rethink education and put some reasonable policies in place, such as doing more to subsidize higher education so we can continue to throw open the doors to college. Any way you look at it, the costs are staggering.

President Joe Biden has the authority under the Higher Education Act to cancel existing federal student loan debt by executive order. To waive the wand and wipe out debt completely, we’re talking about $50,000 per person. Instead, Biden has signaled the figure of $10,000 per borrower. This would total about $321 billion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. About 69% of debtors would have remaining balances. Still, $10,000 is $10,000. It’s a dent and it’s something. We say, go for it, Biden.

The government got us into this mess. In 1992, President Bill Clinton widely expanded the availability of federal student loans. It seemed like a good idea at the time. In the early 2000s, states reduced higher education funding per student, knowing that students could get federal loans to pay for increased tuition. This was the start of the debt trap.

Then in 2007 under President George W. Bush, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program promised to forgive government and nonprofit employees’ debts after 10 years of full-time work and 120 payments. As of September, 1.3 million had applied for the program. Only 1% received loan forgiveness.

The PSLF is just one component. But this is where we must start. First, untangle it. It’s bureaucracy at its worst. Just ask borrowers who met the criteria. The rules were not made clear upfront, so payments not made under specific plans or loan types were not counted. Also, years worked in qualifying jobs were not included unless workers enrolled on Day 1.

Even though borrowers held up their end of the bargain, loans have not been forgiven under the feds’ own established program. This has to change. We have to make the PSLF program user-friendly, finish up business with borrowers and get on with how we want to pay for higher education.

Here’s the least the government could do: Clean up this mess.

Durango Herald editorial board

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