Duncan is a photogenic guy and he says everything the progressive community wants to hear. But he did not have the moral courage to clean up the federal student loan program, and he is leaving American higher education in a mess. Duncan didn't do anything substantive to relieve the suffering of millions of people who have been ripped off by the for-profit college sector. And he didn't do enough to rein in colleges that have high student-loan default rates and low graduation rates.
So where does the nation stand regarding federal student loans? First of all, Americans are carrying at least $1.3 trillion in outstanding student-loan debt (including private student loans, which is perhaps 10 percent of the total).
At least 7 million people are in default, and another 3.9 million are in long-term repayment plans that can stretch payments out for as long as 25 years. A great many of people in these plans will never pay off the principal on their loans.
Of course, the epicenter of the disaster is the for-profit college sector. According to a report released recently by the Brookings Institution, almost half of the people who borrowed money to attend for-profit colleges default within five years of beginning repayment.
And as I have said before, the true magnitude of this train wreck has been hidden from the public because millions of former students have received economic-hardship deferments that relieve them from making loan payments without being counted as a defaulter. The public really has no idea what the true cost of the federal-loan fiasco is.
Moreover, in spite of the fact that the entire higher education industry is heavily dependent on federal student-aid money, a lot of colleges are struggling. Moody's estimates that the number of colleges that are closing will triple by 2017. True--Moody's estimate translates into only 15 colleges closing in that year, a small percentage of the more than 2000 colleges; but Moody's estimate is probably over-optimistic. The whole private sector is slashing tuition to attract students, so that the actual price of tuition is only about half the sticker price that colleges are advertising.
The higher education industry and its sycophants continually assure the public that all is well. People who graduate from college make more than high-school graduates, we are repeatedly told. We also hear that college costs haven't really gone up that much when inflation is taken into account and we calculate how much colleges are discounting their tuition prices. And we are also told that most of the defaulters owe small amounts of money, so rising college tuition isn't the heart of the problem.
All these excuses carry a certain amount of truth, but the fact remains that millions of people have had their credit ruined, their career hopes dashed, and their dreams of financial security destroyed by borrowing money to attend college that they are unable to pay back.
These millions have only one real route toward a second chance in life--discharge of their loans in bankruptcy. But the Department of Education opposes almost all efforts to discharge student loans in the bankruptcy courts other than people who have catastrophic health problems. In fact, DOE--Arne Duncan's DOE--opposed bankruptcy relief for a quadriplegic student-loan debtor who held a job but was unable to provide for himself and pay the full-time caregiver that he needed in order to survive. And DOE had unleashed its lackey, Educational Credit Management Corporation, to hound debtors in the bankruptcy court. ECMC is as ruthless as a character from a Dickens novel, but Duncan did nothing to bring this outfit under control.
So goodbye, Arne Duncan; and good riddance. I'm sure he will toddle off to a cushy university job where he will be working for one of the elite and over-priced institutions that benefited from the shameful federal student-loan program.
But Arne is still young enough to be forced to appear at a congressional hearing ten years from now, when irate Congresspeople will be asking questions about the student-loan bubble that ultimately burst. I can envision him flanked by high-priced lawyers; and I can hear the cameras clicking while he reads his prepared statement to cranky legislators glaring at him over their bifocals. I'm sure he will be just as glib on that day as he is today, and I'll bet he'll be wearing a nice suit.
Adam Looney & Constantine Yannelis, A crisis in student loans? How changes in the characteristics of borrowers and in the institutions they attended contributed to rising default rates. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution (2015). Accessible at: http://www.brookings.edu/about/projects/bpea/papers/2015/looney-yannelis-student-loan-defaults
Kellie Woodhouse, Closures to Triple. Inside Higher Education, September 25, 2015
Kellie Woodhouse. Discounting Grows Again. Inside Higher Education, August 25, 2015.