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A student debt crisis that cannot be ignored
Mitt Romney talks about the country's student-loan problem as if it barely merits fixing — probably because he doesn't know what it means to owe
Yunte Huang
Yunte Huang
L

ast week, in an appearance with smooth and snazzy Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, awkward as usual, did something that made him seem even more robotic. He was about to walk off the stage after a run-of-the-mill speech when an invisible switch was flipped, and Romney, like a wound-up toy soldier, returned to the microphone and added, "I forgot to mention at the very beginning... I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans."

You forgot to mention? With a July 1 deadline looming for Congress to act to prevent interest rates on millions of federal student loans from doubling, student debt is a critical issue in the U.S. — one that shouldn't be treated as an afterthought.

However unsettling Romney's omission was, it's not really a surprise that he would forget about this pressing concern of ordinary Americans. As he once said, "I'm not concerned about the very poor." Clearly! And in this case, perhaps the wealthy Romney's not worried about student loan debt because he never had to worry about piling up debt to go to school, in contrast to Obama, who wasn't able to pay off his debt until he became a senator.

A nation that mortgages the future of its younger generation to private companies is sitting on a dangerous bubble.

I worked three jobs (library assistant, waiter, and clerk at a wig store) just to put myself through graduate school. I wasn't able to completely pay off my debts until my second year of teaching at Harvard. Paying off student loans has become a rite of passage; a young person paying his dues and learning the value of a dollar. In some sense, there's really nothing wrong with the fact that some people don't have to work in order to pay for college. But reality tells a different story, one that reveals something deeply wrong with American education.

One alarming and dismaying trend I have noticed in the past 20 years as a teacher is that students behave more and more like customers who demand to get what they pay for, as if the classroom is a department store. When learning becomes a business transaction, the curiosity of the mind flies out the window, which will only spell the demise of education. But the students aren't to blame. Since 2000, tuition costs nationwide have doubled, middle-class income has remained stagnant, and job prospects are grim. In such a harsh environment, students are forced to change their learning behaviors and become pragmatic, much to the detriment of the quality of their education.

The plight of students is this nation's self-inflicted injury and a window into the dark forces that have set out to ruin the futures of young people. A quick peek at Paul Ryan's budget proposal, endorsed by Romney as "marvelous," tells us what Republicans have in mind. The GOP blueprint, if implemented, would significantly curtail education spending, laying off hundreds of thousands of teachers and causing many more students to lose access to support programs that help them get a better education. The Ryan plan is only the tip of the iceberg; hiding underneath is an agenda that Rep. Ryan and his fellow GOP politicians have been pushing for years: defunding public education to create business opportunities for loan sharks and for-profit colleges.

In 2010, Ryan wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan advocating against gainful-employment rules, which are meant to protect students by requiring for-profit colleges to advertise facts about their programs rather than use trumped up numbers to lure students and trap them with loans. In March, Ryan introduced a plan in the House of Representatives to cut in-school interest subsidies and Pell Grants for about 1 million low-income and middle-class students, making education even more unaffordable for them. The current student debt crisis, which Romney almost forgot to mention in that recent speech, would only be exacerbated by Ryan's proposal to increase student loan interest rates, allowing them to rise to the level of "market norm." It's all about Ryan saving private interests.

The total amount of U.S. student debt has now reached the landmark of $1 trillion, surpassing the total credit card debt in the country. Even worse, unlike credit card debt or home mortgages, student debt cannot be forgiven in bankruptcy, so it follows us like a shadow throughout life. President Obama is right to push for lower interest rates for student loans, and his new proposal for universities not to raise tuition any further — though not nearly enough to change the fundamental picture — would certainly move the country in the right direction. Ultimately, we must make tuition costs completely tax deductible for the middle class rather than give tax cuts to the wealthy. Otherwise, a nation that mortgages the future of its younger generation to private companies, and molds their minds by the laws of the marketplace, is sitting on a dangerous bubble.

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