Back in the days of VHS tape and before the HUB was even built, George W. Bush was president of the United States. Vowing to improve the nation’s education system, he pushed for passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which he promoted as providing accountability to a problematic education system. The law passed on a bipartisan basis, and everyone involved gave themselves a big pat on the back for caring so much about students.
In reality, the law did the legislative equivalent of grinding the nation’s schools into a fine dust. By tying schools’ funding to performance on government-dictated standardized testing, students learned how to take tests, but didn’t learn much else. Poor-performing students were hidden away with administrative parlor tricks to ensure schools maintained high test scores. Finally, in a much-delayed recognition of the law’s numerous shortcomings, the Barack Obama administration granted eight California school districts a one-year waiver from the law.
But if students were hopeful that President Obama would provide a path out of the darkness of the No Child Left Behind years, that hope has been dashed.
Earlier this summer, the student loan rate was set to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, a result of the expiration of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, saddling students with more bills. President Obama jumped into action, advocating for a bill that would tie student loan rates to the well-being of the economy. And though Congress was late — as usual — it finally bestirred itself to do something, and passed a compromise bill on a bipartisan basis. Now subsidized student loan rates are set for the coming year at 3.86 percent for undergraduates, 5.46 percent for graduate students, and 6.41 percent for parents of students.
Each rate is lower than the 6.8 percent that would have been implemented had Congress done nothing. So crisis averted, right?
Not really. Big surprise — thanks to Congress’ skills of procrastination, it’s just been delayed. Because the new law ties the loan rate to the markets, and the economy currently resembles a turtle flipped on its shell, rates are extremely low right now.
But when the economy manages to right itself? All bets are off. In just four short years, student loan rates are predicted to rise above 6.8 percent — the very threshold Congress seemed so worried about in the first place. But don’t worry, rates won’t get too out of hand: The law limits the student loan rate to more than triple the original rate at 10.5 percent.
President Obama praised the law as a “sensible, reasonable approach,” even though it does nothing to fix the systemic issues that are causing costs to skyrocket. He has apparently learned the Texas two-step from President Bush, taking one step forward on education — and two steps back.
In the United States, student loan debt is now greater than credit card debt and car debt. The unemployment rate among youths stands at a staggering 19.7 million, more than double the national average. The poverty rate among students is unconscionably high, and for students living off-campus without relatives, it’s worse.
In the meantime, France, Germany and even Argentina all provide higher education for free.
The shameless truth is that this law does not help students remove the albatross of debt that has been hanging around our necks. In fact, it’s not even designed to. Instead, the law siphons hard-earned dollars from college students and their families to restock the federal government’s coffers, to the tune of over $700 million.
For a president who himself took out student loans to attend college, and only paid them back four years before he became president, his support for this policy is more than just disappointing. It runs counter to his campaign promises of making college more affordable for students, and is especially enraging considering that he won both his 2008 election and 2012 reelection on the backs of young voters.
The expiration of the College Cost Reduction and Affordability Act was a perfect opportunity to advance changes that would have truly benefited students. Removing all the costs of college isn’t in the cards yet, but President Obama could have made grants for low-income students more readily available. He could have followed up on a 2009 promise to make college affordable for students who did community service. He could have even campaigned to renew the law as it was, to ensure at least that student loan rates did not go up.
The outcome may not have resulted in any of those things. Congress, after all, is especially prone to spoiling perfectly good broth. But President Obama chose to not even argue for policies beneficial to students. He threw one of the constituencies key to his reelection under the bus as soon as he had the opportunity. Nobody gets everything they want in politics. But whether the president is Republican or Democratic, it seems as if students get shafted more often than most, even when allegedly supportive politicians are in office.
“We’ll never be able to compete in the 21st century unless we have an education system that doesn’t quit on children,” former President George W. Bush said. President Barack Obama has similarly waxed poetic, saying, “We know that education is everything to our children’s future.”
Those platitudes are fine for running for election. Politicians like vaguely positive, uplifting promises anyway. However, when politicians actually achieve the office they desire, is it too much to ask that they stop with the lip service and follow through with policy?