Approximately 52,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2015. That’s an average rate of around 140 deaths a day. In fact, opioid overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50. If we continue at this rate, a half million Americans will die from drug overdoses over the next ten years–roughly nine times as many Americans as were killed in the Vietnam War.
But let’s compare the opioid crisis to the student-loan disaster. Last year, 1.2 million Americans defaulted on student loans; that’s an average rate of 3,000 people a day. Obviously, defaulting on a student loan is not as serious as dying from a drug overdose. Nevertheless, the consequences of student-loan default are catastrophic.
First of all, a student-loan default triggers penalties and fees that are attached to the unpaid debt, making it less likely that the debtor will ever pay off his or her student loans. Secondly, student-loan defaulters cannot take out more student loans to obtain additional education or training. Third, unlike most unsecured loans, student loans are very difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.
In short, people who default on their student loans run a good chance of becoming lifetime debtors who will never improve their economic circumstances. In other words, a student-loan default is the equivalent of an economic death sentence.
People who attend for-profit colleges have the highest student-loan default rates. A Brookings Institution report documented that almost half of the people in a recent cohort who borrowed money to attend a for-profit school defaulted within five years. Another analysis reported that three out of four African Americans who attended for-profit colleges eventually default on their loans.
In my opinion, a good case can be made that the student-loan catastrophe is causing more harm than the opioid epidemic. Around 44 million Americans have student-loan debt; that’s about one American in five. College-loan indebtedness is hampering people’s ability to buy homes, save for retirement, and purchase health insurance. Without question, millions of Americans would have been better off if they had never pursued postsecondary education because the indebtedness they took on degraded the quality of their lives rather than enhanced it.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has has made the student-debt crisis worse. Again and again, she has made decisions that favor the corrupt for-profit industry at the expense of struggling student loan debtors, even debtors who were defrauded by for-profit colleges.
To its credit, the Obama administration crafted regulations whereby students could apply to the Department of Education to have their student loans forgiven if they were defrauded by the college they attended. Thousands of students have applied for loan forgiveness based on fraud claims, including students who borrowed money to attend two bankrupt for-profit institutions: ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges.
The Obama regulations were to have taken effect on July 1, 2017, but Betsy DeVos stopped the implementation of the these regulations, saying she feared students would get “free money.” She then appointed a panel of experts to draft new regulations, which won’t be approved until next year. In fact, under the DeVos scheme, defrauded students will not be able to move forward on their claims until 2019 at the earliest.
And it appears that many students will not get complete relief from their loans even if they can prove they were defrauded. DeVos is talking about giving partial relief based on a formula that will compare the defrauded student’s earnings to the average earnings among people who participated in similar educational programs.
The cynicism of this approach is shocking. First of all, by delaying the administrative process until 2019, DeVos is giving fraud victims only three options for handling their oppressive student debt. First, they can continue making loan payments on educational experiences that are worthless to them. Second, they can enter income-based repayment plans that will set monthly payments so low that the interest on their debt will continue to accrue, making their total indebtedness grow larger. Or third, they can default on their loans, which will ruin their credit and cause their debt to grow larger from fees and penalties that the debt collectors tack on to their original debt.
DeVos’s tactic is nothing more than a cynical manipulation to aid the for-profit industry, which does not want fraud claims to be examined. If Congress had a moral compass and some courage, DeVos’s behavior would lead to a formal resolution calling for her resignation.
Unfortunately, Congress is as beholden to the for-profit colleges as Betsy DeVos. The for-profits have used lobbyists and strategic campaign contributions to buy Congress’s silence; and at least a few of our federal representatives (Senators Olympia Snowe and Dianne Feinstein, for example) have personally profited from ties to the for-profit college industry.
And thus our elected representatives are willing to allow millions of lives to be destroyed and the integrity of higher education to be degraded rather than reform the federal student-loan program. In sum, Congress is willing to tolerate human suffering that may exceed the harm caused by opioid addiction.