Student loan debt in America has reached a staggering $1.3 trillion, surpassing even credit card debt. But right-wing media figures have criticized efforts to combat student loan debt by pushing misinformation and blaming students for pursuing higher education.
Conservative media have labeled higher education as a "privilege" and suggested students ought to choose fictional cheaper colleges. Some outlets have even defended schools that take advantage of students and leave them with significant debt. But research shows college matters now more than ever, and the cost to attend is rising across the board. The student debt crisis is especially damaging for poor students and students of color, who more frequently attend cheaper open-access and community colleges and are still forced to borrow in higher numbers to pay for their education.
Blaming students for the student loan debt crisis ignores the facts and distracts from finding real solutions to America's skyrocketing student debt burden.
From the November 12 edition of Fox News' The Kelly File:
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Federal law allows for-profit colleges to access more federal funding by enrolling large numbers of military veterans, despite evidence that many of these schools do not prepare their students for the job market. In recent years, predatory recruitment of service members by several for-profit college chains has been exposed by congressional and media investigations, yet the Wall Street Journal editorial board continues to defend the schools' recruiting practices and advocates for fewer student protections at for-profit institutions. In honor of Veterans Day, here are some of the Journal's most misleading and inflammatory arguments defending failing for-profits that take advantage of veterans.
An October 5 editorial by the Wall Street Journal used anti-union rhetoric and pro-privatization arguments to celebrate Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's resignation and replacement by Acting Deputy Education Secretary John King. The editorial perpetuated several well-worn education policy myths, and mischaracterized the economic outcomes of for-profit colleges and the effects of voucher programs for low-income students of color.
From the October 6 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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From the October 6 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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As the nation's student loan debt burden continues to grow and voters look to 2016 presidential candidates for solutions, right-wing media continue to perpetuate debunked myths about college costs, financial aid, and student loans. Here are the facts that conservative media outlets ignore.
A 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 Journal, 8/21/15]
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.
Right-wing media have falsely claimed Hillary Clinton's debt-free college plan eliminates student financial responsibility and doesn't address rising tuition costs. In fact, students on the plan would be required to work, and the proposal ties federal funding to states lowering school costs.
From the August 18 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto:
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The Wall Street Journal editorial board falsely blamed the Obama administration for the closing of for-profit college company Corinthian Colleges, ignoring mountains of evidence that the company engaged in exploitative practices against its students.
Corinthian Colleges Inc. announced on April 26 that it would immediately shut down its 28 remaining campuses, following reports that it has been "teetering on the brink of collapse for months." About 16,000 students in five states are affected by the move, which Mic.com called "the final act of a slow-motion disintegration."
On April 27, The Wall Street Journal editorial board defended Corinthian, claiming that the "feds and [California Attorney General] Kamala Harris put 16,000 students on the street." The editorial alleged that the Department of Education (ED) "began to drive Corinthian out of business by choking off federal student aid," that Corinthian was held at "government gunpoint," and that an ED "penalty scared away prospective buyers." The editorial concluded:
Though Corinthian has established an escrow account for refunds, the reserve likely won't be sufficiently capitalized to cover 16,000 students. Maybe there would be more money for students if Corinthian didn't have to spend so much defending itself from the government. But for the Obama Administration, protecting students has always been second to its mission of doing whatever it takes to put for-profit schools out of business.
The WSJ's attempt to blame the ED for Corinthian's collapse is misguided given that the for-profit company has been under investigation for years for "exploitative practices," including "predatory lending, deception in performance data and job placement rates, and bogus career services." Last summer, the ED cut Corinthian off from receiving federal aid, and penalized them with a $30 million fine earlier this month for 947 confirmed cases of "misrepresentation of job placement rates." California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a lawsuit against Corinthian in 2013, alleging that the company "targeted some of our state's most particularly vulnerable people -- including low income, single mothers and veterans returning from combat."
A group of former Corinthian students also announced earlier this year that they would "not repay any federal student loans they took out to attend Corinthian's schools," calling it a "debt strike." Officials from the ED, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Department of the Treasury met with those former students last month and listened to claims that "they were either lured into taking out loans with bogus promises of future job prospects or were simply signed up for loans by their school's staff without their consent." Think Progress further noted in its "inside story" on Corinthian:
The company's bait-and-switch approach to recruiting students -- or making sales to customers -- lured many ambitious people who thought they were investing in future economic security, workplace dignity, or job satisfaction. But ultimately, many of them were just buying a meaningless degree at a very high price.
This isn't the first time the WSJ has used faulty arguments to defend for-profit colleges, or even its first foray into deceptive reporting on higher education and student debt. This editorial echoes a larger trend within conservative media to ignore the realities of America's student debt crisis.
Image at top via Flickr user Jeramey Jannene using a Creative Commons license.
Media outlets are falsely alleging that President Obama's plan for free community college will hurt the middle class because it makes changes to 529 college savings plans. In fact, those who use 529 plans tend to be wealthy, and the changes will help build a broader tax credit for college savings.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board used a misleading comparison of graduation rates to attack community colleges as "inferior" to for-profit schools. In reality, for-profit schools have significantly higher costs and employ questionable business practices that translate to lower employment and earnings for their graduates.
A Wall Street Journal editorial dismissed the student loan relief plan outlined by President Obama as a distraction from the so-called Bowe Bergdahl "scandal," even though conservative media had previously declared Bergdahl's release a distraction from other alleged "scandals."
In a June 9 editorial, the Journal's editorial board attacked Obama's plan to extend income-contingent loan repayment options to all recipients of federal student loans. The Journal chided Obama's decision to extend through executive action reduced payment options to 5 million previously unqualified borrowers who had taken out loans before October 2007. The Journal also invoked myths that college loans are driving up attendance costs and represent taxpayer handouts to college graduates.
The Journal concluded its anti-loan relief tirade by claiming that the president's announcement, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) proposal to lower student loan interest rates, amount to little more than "attempts to change the subject" from alleged "scandals" and "government failures." From the editorial:
The Warren bill has no chance to pass the House, as Democrats know. The Warren bill and the Obama debt-forgiveness-by-fiat are attempts to change the subject from the cascading examples of government failure -- the VA scandal (see nearby), the Taliban prisoner swap, the rising cost of health insurance under ObamaCare. In the Obama era, government failure is never a failure. It's another political opportunity to call for more of the same.
The Journal's claim that proposals to relieve millions of student loan borrowers buried under more than $1 trillion in outstanding debt are a distraction from "the Taliban prisoner swap" is just the latest in a series of right-wing media outlets obsessing over the notion that each policy proposal or news development from the White House is a "distraction" from something else:
The Journal's decision to force the "distraction" talking point into the student loan debate proves that no news item is safe from being uncritically dismissed by right-wing media outlets bent on turning every issue into a political scandal.
Fox News is ignoring economists' warnings that record student debt is a drag on the economy and attacking President Obama's plan to provide an avenue for student debt relief as a "distraction" that Fox claims will leave taxpayers "footing the bill."