“Obama” appears in 38 of the 641 posts I’ve published on this site since it began in May 2010. A few weeks before he left office, I threatened to investigate what I’d written about him or his administration over those six-plus years. The short answer is that if you didn’t know any better, you’d’ve thought this author was a Bernie Bro.
But I do know better, and no, I’m not a Bernie Bro, but my thoughts on the 2016 election are for another post. Until then, I can’t argue with much of what I’ve written about Obama.
Consider this gem from, “Bucket, Meet Drop, or Why We Shouldn’t Tolerate Electoral Sunk Costs,” October 27, 2011:
This is what I mean by “electoral sunk costs”: It’s one thing to wake up one morning and realize you’re wedded to policies that sell jet-setting globalization but in reality force people to reduce their life expectations to McJobs. It’s another thing to go out and campaign on, “This country has been wrecked by kleptocrats. Time for the rich to ‘suffer’ painful reforms, and pay no attention to the fact that we just spent four years on hope and change and delivered neither.”
A weasel hath not such a deal of spleen as I am tossed with.
In faith, I don’t disagree with this position. “President Obama squandered an opportunity to be the FDR voters hoped he’d be,” I would write a few weeks later, and indeed, in higher education Obama was no visionary.
Here’s a summary my writings on Obama’s statements or his administration’s actions on higher education and student loans. The order is non-chronological.
- College for all
I wrote a few posts on Obama or his administration’s overall higher-education agenda. Apparently, in August 2010 he said, “[Higher] education is the economic issue of our time.” (The White House has taken down the transcript. Hm.) He reasoned that because unemployment was double for non-college graduates than college grads, and that eight in ten jobs over the next decade would require workforce training or higher education, we needed to send more people to college. How the Great Recession suddenly made all these workers redundant escaped him; so much for aggregate demand.
He didn’t budge from that position. In “‘Hope and Change,’ Meet ‘No Hope, Cosmetic Change’” (February 19, 2013) I found that Obama’s Treasury Department and Education Department joined forces to argue the economic case for higher education. Treasury and ED believed that skill-biased technological change was forcing people out of work, even though the Labor Department projected more job growth in lower-wage service sector jobs than skilled ones. Labor productivity hasn’t gone far in the last decade either.
Obama even walked back the “Eight in ten” line a year after he made it. By 2011, only 60 percent of new jobs over the next decade would require more than a high-school diploma. I traced the source of that statement to a paper by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, which warned that by 2018—next year!—the U.S. would be short 300,000 college-educated workers. The paper dismissed pessimistic estimates of Labor Department data showing that tens of millions of college graduates are and would be “malemployed” because they worked in jobs that don’t require any real education.
- Promoting income-driven repayment (IDR) plans
If there’s one thing that’s driven me nuts about writing about student loans is all the names that the government and journalists gave to IDR plans. To this day I still casually refer to them as IBR, but after the administration created Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE), then REPAYE, and then distinguishing ICR from PSLF, it got exhausting. The salient point though is that under Obama, the government created a bunch of improved repayment plans, and promoted the existing ones that the earlier W. Bush government made.
Naturally, critics—mainly The Wall Street Journal and the New America Foundation—attacked the plans’ loan-forgiveness features and then raised alarms over the administration’s success at enrolling debtors on them. For example, in, “WSJ: Big Numbers Divided by Small Numbers Yield Large Percentages,” I made fun of the publication for its slant against student debtors. Primarily the criticism of IDR plans focuses on graduate- and professional-school debtors who are certain to obtain high-paying jobs and therefore need IDR plans—to say nothing of PSLF—least. These outlets almost never separate the problems of IDR plans from the odious Grad PLUS Loan Program, which is responsible for graduates’ high debt levels in the first place.
Obama’s myopia on the value of college education was offset by his recognition that student debtors were hurting. Relying on a legislative framework created by his predecessor, the result is a cumbersome system (for debtors) that prevents widespread defaults and more Occupy Wall Street-type protests. At one point, he even proposed a budget that would change how the tax code treats forgiven loans.
- The “gainful employment” rule
The Department of Education began working on the “gainful employment” rule early in Obama’s first term. Frequently criticized as unfairly targeting entrepreneurs, the rule attempts to ensure that for-profit colleges don’t exploit the federal loan system. It’s too bad federal law doesn’t authorize this kind of accountability toward all institutions, because if the “gainful employment” rule were applied to all law schools, many of them would fail quite quickly and a majority would be in serious trouble.
- Ending the Federal Family Education Loan Program, buying up student loans.
One of the Affordable Care Act’s smaller cost-saving mechanisms was eliminating the program that guaranteed education loans by private banks, which are not to be confused with totally private loans. The program, which was the mainstay version of federal lending for decades, was a great way for banks to make easy profits. By socializing student lending, the government saved many billions of dollars, and made direct loans the only federal option for student debtors.
The Republican Party’s platform is to bring it back.
I discussed the ACA part here, but I think the numbers might be wrong because I didn’t consider that the government was buying up guaranteed loans, turning them into direct loans. This action is what will set the stage for many people shrieking that the government would lend $30 trillion by 2030 and more importantly a future write-down of the loans outstanding. Debts that cannot be repaid, won’t be. The only question is whether the write-down occurs through IDR mechanisms or something new. Here is where Obama kicked the can down the line to his successors.
- Undoing subsidized loans for grad students, floating student loan interest rates
One result of the pointless debt-ceiling fight in 2011 was taking away subsidized Stafford loans from graduate- and professional-school students. Ultimately, it cost a new law student about $3,600 in payments.
I’m unsure if it was related to another government crisis, but Obama also signed legislation that floated student loan interest rates. The rates are based solely on the whims of the bond markets every spring. Nevertheless, the legislation has benefited borrowers because interest rates have been lower than the fixed statutory rates in the days of yore. In 2016, graduate/professional Stafford loans and Grad PLUS loans were about 1.5 percent lower than the fixed rates. This will save debtors money in theory, but if rates rise, they’re hosed.
- The two-year law degree
In summer 2013, Obama even weighed in on legal education, which indicated either the coverage the topic was receiving or his interest as a former law professor. It was a throwaway statement, but I teased him for it in, “Obama Favors Law Graduate Underemployment, Poverty Wages.”
- Arne Duncan
Finally, I add that I expected Arne Duncan to find a warm seat at the Lumina Foundation after he stepped down as Secretary of Education. Apparently, he defied this expectation, and he’s working with troubled Chicago youth. Good for him, but I still think he was incompetent because he egged Obama on with his college-for-all dogmatism.
Obama made the typical student debtor better off than when he left office—but not by much. Some superficial changes and policy nudges lowered debt burdens and eased repayments, but much of it was incidental to his other objectives.
In light of the 2016 election, what disappoints me most about Obama is his 20th century attitude towards sending everyone to college. I can forgive Sanders, Clinton, and possibly Trump for believing college is the answer. These candidates were the dead hand of the pre-Reagan America trying to fit obsolete policies around new problems. But Obama is younger than these people, and it only makes him look even more like an out-of-touch ivory tower intellectual. Underemployment is still around in 2017, and more self-inflicted political crises will push student debt further down the agenda, so it’s not going to be resolved for a while. Amid today’s excitement, we shouldn’t forget that Obama gave higher education and student loan debt a lost decade.