Barack Obama, Election 2012, Politics, Student Loans

At The Hofstra Debate, Both Candidates Dodge Student Debt Issue

I had the pleasure of being at Hofstra University last night to watch the presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I wasn’t actually in the venue where the debate itself was held, but in overflow seating with a bunch of Hofstra people. I had been invited earlier in the day to participate in a student debt discussion at Hofstra Law, and they let me hang around for the rest of the day.

I already know who I’m going to vote for. Everybody I spoke to already knew who were they going to vote for. If there were people there who were still unsure about who they were going to vote for, I didn’t notice them, probably because “undecided” voters are too stupid to walk around campus and talk and not choke on their own saliva. In any event, it was fun to watch the debate with a diverse group; everybody hears what they want to hear. Republicans heard Romney’s five-point plan to fix the economy and piss off China. I heard this:

But I’d like to think everybody heard the same thing from both candidates when it comes to student loans: a load of bullcrap….

The panel I was invited to speak on was called: What Should the Next President Do to Defuse the Student Debt Bomb? It was organized by Hofstra Law professor Norman Sibler — who is also a director of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. The other panelists were:

I think you all know what I said. I argued that the next president should reform the bankruptcy laws to make student loan debt dischargeable without a showing of undue hardship. And I said that the government should demand transparency and honesty from institutions about their graduate outcomes so that consumers of education at least had a fighting chance of making an informed decision.

The discussion that we had that had the most relevance with the presidential debate was the talk about Pell Grants. Draut explained that the actual “purchasing power” of the federal Pell Grant (the one thing you don’t have to pay back) has declined from a high of $7 out of every $10 educational dollars, to about $3.40 today. Mierzwinski then pointed out how a Romney administration, at least under a Paul Ryan budget, seems poised to eviscerate Pell grants should Romney win the election.

Neal McCluskey, the “libertarian” on the panel, thinks the federal government should get out of the business of funding education completely. He believes that things like the Pell Grant are what cause the astronomical rise in tuition at colleges and universities. Schools raise tuition because the federal government is providing the money.

As regular readers of this blog know, I think McCluskey’s view makes a certain kind of sense. Making school “affordable” can’t be all about putting the treasury on the hook for the exorbitant fees charged by our institutions of higher learning — it’s got to involve stopping the price gouging and bringing tuition down to a level that people can afford without going into debt in the first place.

Of course, Draut also thinks that students shouldn’t have to go into debt just to go to college. Her solution involves making college essentially free for everybody in terms of out-of-pocket, up-front costs. They’d then pay a percentage of their income for ten years after they graduate. Draut acknowledges that her solution is likely politically unworkable, and my main issue with McCluskey’s solution is that it’s the classic, Republican “f**k ’em” approach that disproportionately screws the poor and minorities.

But the point, I think, is that there are options out there. There are different ways we could go about funding higher education that does not involve hobbling an entire generation with debts they can’t pay. Whether you cut off the federal spigot and starve universities of their guaranteed federal money, or you guarantee education for students but not profits for schools, there are ways to stop a system that financially ruins people who are just trying to educate themselves.

Unfortunately, nobody running for president seems to understand that. The first question in last night’s debate was from a sad, indebted college student who was worried about getting a job and paying back his loans in this economy. Romney answered first, and in what can most kindly be described as a “lie,” said that he planned to maintain or expand Pell Grants. Then he went into his Romney patter of how he had the secret formula to create jobs.

Obama did no better. After applauding the student for going to school, the president ignored how expensive school has become and went into his patter about how more people need to go to school so they can compete for the jobs of the future. Like good manufacturing jobs, because every parent sends their kid to college in hopes that one day they’ll be able to work on a line making a widget — sorry, a “green” widget.

I watched the debate with McCluskey. Sure, I disagree with pretty much everything he stands for, but he’s a good guy, and we both just shook our heads at the answers. Whatever you think about student debts, it’s pretty clear that the people running for president are not thinking about it. They’re just trying to keep the system going for another four years, hoping that when it all blows up, it’ll be on somebody else’s watch.

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