As commencement season approaches, graduating students will soon hear words of wisdom from speakers offering experience, advice and inspiration. One thing they’re not likely to hear about is the $1.08 trillion elephant on the quad — our nation’s student debt crisis.
That is how much U.S. households are estimated to owe in student loans, twice as much as in 2007. In fact, student debt now exceeds credit card debt, putting millions of families at risk of bankruptcy. Forty percent of households headed by someone under the age of 35 that are saddled with student debt, unable to buy homes, raise families and secure their futures. This doesn’t just hold back individuals — it holds back our economic recovery. Meanwhile, Congress manufactures false debt crises instead of solving this very real one.
Enter Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who intuitively understands the urgency and scale of the crisis. Indeed, Warren is not just a longtime student of bankruptcy in the United States, but someone who understands what it means for a family to be at risk of losing everything. As she writes in her new book, "A Fighting Chance," the rules are such that a sudden event — divorce, illness, unemployment — can pull the rug out from under anyone. "A turn here, a turn there, and my life might have been very different, too," she writes.
Warren first came to Washington to battle a system that has long been rigged against the middle class, where working families’ voices get overpowered by well-funded lobbyists who hold elected officials by the pocket. In a 2009 interview with Michael Moore, she said, "You can’t buy a toaster in America that has a one in five chance of exploding. But you can buy a mortgage that has a one in five chance of exploding, and they don’t even have to tell you about it . . . We have consumer protection for everything you touch, taste, smell, feel . . . But there is no equivalent for credit cards, for mortgages. There’s nothing."
That’s why she successfully fought to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the first new pro-consumer, pro-people agency Washington has seen in decades.
The senator has since been deploying her compassionate, creative firepower to combat the student debt crisis. Last July, Congress allowed interest rates on federal student loans to double. Warren fought against the compromise solution — flawed legislation that tied interest rates for new loans to the market, but left those with existing loans out to dry. As she noted at the time, the federal government stood to profit from all those IOUs, to the tune of $200 billion over the next 10 years, an arrangement that Warren rightly called "obscene."
She lost that round, but refused to quit. Earlier this year, she proposed legislation that would allow individuals with existing student loans to refinance at the same lower rates that were set last summer for new loans. Warren’s plan would also enact the so-called "Buffett rule," which would establish a minimum tax on income over $1 million and would allocate the projected $50 billion in revenue exclusively for refinancing student debt. "Do we invest in students or millionaires?" she asked in a speech at the Center for American Progress.
Sadly — and predictably — the resounding answer from the right is "millionaires." The conservative Heritage Foundation has not only criticized the "Buffett rule" but also called for the federal government to get out of the college loan business, a step that would leave the middle class out in the cold when it comes to pursuing higher education. Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Ryan’s latest budget would slash $90 billion from Pell grants and start charging students interest while still in school.
The United States could and should do much more to help middle- and low-income families afford postsecondary education — especially at a time when our economic growth depends on an educated workforce. As I’ve argued before, we could make public college or advanced training free to qualified students for about $30 billion annually — less, for instance, than the $483 billion in defense discretionary spending that Ryan’s budget would add over the next 10 years.
And people are squarely in Warren’s corner. Americans of both parties overwhelmingly favor keeping loan rates at their current rate or lowering them. Students continue to protest the status quo, and in Warren they now have a fierce, fearless advocate.
Commencement speakers usually call on their audiences to use their youth and idealism to tackle the nation’s most urgent problems. This year, commencement speakers from across the country should address the problem located on the very campuses that will host them, challenging students, lawmakers and college administrators to ensure that higher education remains an engine for growth, not a dead end of debt.
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