On April 25, the United States will observe an important anniversary. Unfortunately, it won’t be a day that gives us pride or joy. It’s the five-year anniversary of the day we reached the $1 trillion mark for our collective student loan debt in America.
One. Trillion. Dollars.
And it continues to grow. It’s now at $1.4 trillion. In Virginia, college students who graduated in 2015 have an average debt of $28,000. More than one million Virginians owe $30 billion in student loans.
Nationally, the average student loan debt has increased substantially since ten years ago and people are having a hard time paying their loans off. Forty-four million Americans are struggling with student loan debt, meaning millions of people don’t have a chance at buying a new home or car. Many people have to choose between paying for groceries or their student loan bill.
While the cost for in-state tuition and fees at Virginia’s public universities has soared by almost 28 percent since 2013, government support for tuition costs in the form of grants and scholarships hasn’t kept up with the increase. Without that help, many families have to shoulder the tuition hikes, forcing them to take out more student loans. Recent actions from the Trump administration indicate it won’t bother helping working families pay for college. In fact, it’s going to make life harder for people already struggling to make ends meet.
The biggest danger to American students isn’t a grizzly bear, it’s DeVos.
Betsy DeVos, the least qualified Secretary of Education ever, has made short work at hurting people’s bank accounts since her February confirmation. Under DeVos’ direction, the Department of Education has rolled back guidelines issued by the Obama administration that help people with student loan debt. She has also re-enacted penalties on borrowers who default on their loans and made suspicious moves on the future of the public service loan forgiveness program.
The Department of Education is in charge of managing the country’s federal student loan program and hires private companies to collect payments on those loans. You can bet the cheeto-in-chief’s billionaire accomplice, DeVos, is working in favor of those companies. In early April, DeVos sent a memo to the head of the Federal Student Aid office revoking Obama administration rules that better regulated student debt collection agencies. In creating minimum customer service standards, Obama’s guidelines moved away from focusing on debt collection to helping borrowers better manage what they owe.
By saying Obama’s rules weren’t cost-effective, DeVos’ change undoes safeguards that held debt collection agencies accountable for their treatment of student loan borrowers. These are the type of companies that DeVos had to divest from before getting her job in the Trump Cabinet.
It was revealed during her Senate confirmation hearing that DeVos had ties to Performant Financial Company, a student debt collection agency. Performant previously lost its contract with the Education Department under Obama because of hundreds of complaints filed against the company for sketchy behavior. Performant was guilty of doing the types of things the Obama administration sought to protect borrowers from when it issued its 2016 guidelines.
For years, the Better Business Bureau received more than 300 complaints about Performant from consumers who said the company did things like garnish wages on already paid loans and harass debtors and family members by constantly calling them at home and work. Now, Performant can start hassling people again because of DeVos’ memo, which student loan borrower advocates decried as putting the interests of lenders over those of borrowers.
DeVos works to enrich her banker friends and impoverish average Americans
Before pulling back those guidelines, DeVos acted in mid-March to increase penalties on student loan borrowers who default on their debt. She overturned another Obama rule that stopped student debt collection agencies from charging fees on past-due loans if the borrower entered a repayment program within 60 days of defaulting. Under DeVos’ rule, lenders can now charge borrowers up to 16 percent of the amount owed if they default. This came just days after it was reported that the number of student loan defaults is skyrocketing.
These new developments added to the panic felt by hundreds of thousands of people in late March when a legal filing made in court by the Education Department created uncertainty about the future of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Started in 2007 during the Bush administration, the program offered relief to people who work in the public sector for ten years by erasing their student loan debts. Since then more than five hundred thousand people have signed up by taking jobs in the federal, state or local public service fields, hoping to have their debts excused.
In 2017, the program reaches it first ten-year mark. Thousands of people are waiting on the federal government to make good on its promise to forgive their debt after putting in a decade’s worth of honest work. So, what does the Trump administration do? It’s giving people a cold sweat by arguing in court that approval letters the government sent to people to put them in the program are not legally binding. Although the ruling currently only affects a few people, borrowers worry that the wording has broad enough implications to involve thousands of more people.
DeVos is enacting a pro-corporate agenda that hurts Americans who play by the rules. People burdened with tens and hundreds of dollars of student loan debt can’t afford to buy houses or cars, can’t afford to start families and can’t afford to pursue their dreams.
Virginia should offer relief to its residents by refinancing student loan debts and increasing oversight of lenders. Bills seeking to do that were killed by Republicans during this year’s General Assembly session. Other states are looking for ways for students to avoid taking out student loans by lowering college tuition. New York recently announced that it would make its public four year universities free for students who promised to stay and work in the state after graduation. Surely, Virginia can cook up a similar plan.