Saturday, Dec 10, 2016
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Keith Burris

COMMENTARY

Why punish kids who want an education?

A few weeks ago, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) came to Perrysburg High School to talk about student loans.

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Student loans are supposed to help our young people — help them get in to college and then professional life.

What they are doing today, instead, is crippling young people.

Mr. Brown has two bills in the works, one of which would clarify what is actually in student loan agreements — the interest rates and the way they compound and the penalties and fees. All this would have to be explained in simple, transparent language. The second bill would make it possible for students to refinance private loans of 7, 8, or 9 percent to a lower, more reasonable rate — 4, 3, or 2 percent.

Mr. Brown brought with him, on this day, a young man named Kelly McVicker, who borrowed $40,000 to go to school. Now that debt has grown to $70,000. Mr. McVicker is not only crippled by the debt, but his credit is ruined. And his ability to get a good job has been compromised by his credit rating.

Kelly McVicker is starting life in the hole.

I asked Sen. Brown if either of these bills has a chance of passing. His answer was: “Not yet.”

But Mr. Brown is staying on it and working with other senators, like Elizabeth Warren.

Ms. Warren has more confidence than a lot of us have in the government’s ability to fix things. But she is also one of the few current senators who has the fearlessness of the great senators of a generation ago — like Phil Hart of Michigan, Steve Young of Ohio, and the great Wayne Morse of Oregon. She says: “You can’t get what you don’t fight for.” I like that.

Ms. Warren has yet another bill in the hopper that would allow victims like Kelly McVicker to discharge their loans via bankruptcy. That’s not possible now. Yet you can declare bankruptcy because of credit card debt.

Ms. Warren asks why consumer debt should be treated more favorably than educational debt. That’s a good question.

She adds that we are, in effect, taxing the desire to be educated.

On Wednesday the Senate voted down a proposal by Ms. Warren that would have subsidized the refinancing of past student loan debt for thousands of young people with increased taxes on wealthy households.

Student loans are now the biggest source of debt in America — $1.2 trillion. That’s more than the total of all car loan debt or credit card debt. We need to attack the student debt problem and control usurious lenders.

State governments should also start doing again what they did in the 1960s and 1970s: investing in public universities and their students. Ohio once led the nation in accessibility and affordability in public higher education. Today, state government does the minimum for public higher ed.

For the life of me, I cannot see why this is not a bipartisan issue. No young person should be punished for trying to educate and better himself.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.

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