Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board joined a chorus of right-wing outlets in blasting the federal government’s income-based student loan repayment program, calling it a costly “con” meant to “buy millennial votes.” Yet right-wing media are ignoring the benefits of a program that could relieve millions of student borrowers of a portion of their remaining debt and that is still generating a profit.
Right-wing media lambasted the Department of Education and student borrowers after the Journal reported on November 30 the latest findings from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that the government is on track to forgive $108 billion of $352 billion in student loans as part of federal income-driven repayment plans. The Journal’s editorial board blasted the government on December 1, calling the latest findings proof that the Department of Education’s loan program is a “con” designed to “buy millennial votes.” (The editorial column was the Journal’s second since November 1 lamenting the federal program, which has led to millions of students earning student loan forgiveness.) Earlier that day, Fox News host Jon Scott questioned if the program was a “bailout” for student borrowers. Fox Business host Stuart Varney also called the program “a bailout” on the November 30 edition of Varney & Co., while his guest Steve Costes added that the program is “a shame.”
Federal student loan borrowers have multiple repayment plan options, including income-based plans that require borrowers to pay back loans based on a percentage of their income for a certain number of years, after which the remainder is eligible to be forgiven. The GAO’s findings were for the hypothetical cost in loan principal forgiveness for the 5.3 million borrowers who signed up for income-based repayment plans for loans issued over a 22-year period, between 1995 to 2017. These borrowers will likely see an average of $21 forgiven for every $100 in loans received. Despite right-wing media complaining about the cost of borrower relief for those on income-based payment plans, the GAO found that the Department of Education still nets a profit on student loans.
The reason the government still makes a profit even after loan forgiveness is because many federal student loans have an interest rate at 6.8 percent — a figure that is much higher than inflation or the 1 percent interest rate banks receive from the Federal Reserve. The 6.8 percent interest rate is so high that the GAO’s hypothetical borrower would pay almost double the original principal of their loan if the income-based plan had no cutoff date for forgiveness:
Student loan debt is a leading concern among young people, with The Atlantic finding nearly 30 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 “cited paying off student loans as their biggest financial challenge.” According to Fortune, “there is little doubt that many Millennials are struggling financially” after a survey by PwC found that 79 percent of the 42 percent of millennials that have student loans struggle to pay those loans. Evidence shows student debt can impact personal wealth, delay homeownership affect personal decisions to marry or start a family, and that it has “cripple[d] retail sales growth.” The financial stress of student loans has a “devastating toll” on borrowers’ mental health, according to Complex, which cited findings by researchers that “student loans were associated with poorer psychological functioning.”
While right-wing media push many myths about student debt, student concerns are valid; according to a November 21 op-ed published by Investopedia, Americans with student loan debt have “a challenging road ahead of them in the present and the future” due to workers being unable to save for retirement. The op-ed, which was authored by a financial adviser, even questioned whether people with student loans “will be able to retire” at all. The increasing debt burden can even hinder career advancement as graduates can be forced to take jobs that may have no chance of wage growth or career development so they can make debt payments on time.
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.