The biggest higher education scandal may not be the one you’ve heard the most about. While most people were stunned by the news that a few wealthy parents had worked with a dishonest consultant to get their children into elite colleges through the use of bribery and fraud, another announcement got much less attention.

The Trump administration has proposed changing the rules for students borrowing in ways that would make a college education out of reach for millions of middle-income families. Among the proposals is the elimination of a program that forgives debt owed by borrowers who work in public service for 10 years. Other programs that link loan repayment to income are also being squeezed.

A lot of legislating will have to happen before any of Trump’s budget becomes law, but the fact that the administration is willing to find savings in programs like these shows how vulnerable student borrowers have become and how few people in power are looking out for their interests.

A step in the right direction has been put before the Maine Legislature in the form of a bill proposed by state Sen. Eloise Vitelli. L.D. 995 would identify abusive practices by lenders and establish an ombudsman within the state Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection who would monitor the transactions.

This is the kind of consumer protection that is long overdue. The size of the problem is reason enough to demand more attention.

At a time when a post-secondary education is more important than ever to securing good-paying jobs, and the cost of colleges and graduate school are on the rise, families are facing tougher choices. The nation’s total student debt exceeds $1.5 trillion – more than has accumulated on all of the credit cards combined. Not only has the amount owed ballooned – up 400 percent since 2004 – defaults are also at historic highs. And since it takes longer to pay back bigger loans, it’s not just young people who are affected. In 2004, people over 40 had the smallest share of the total debt, a trend that has been turned upside-down, with people over 40 shouldering the biggest share.

In Maine, one in five residents owes money on student loans. The median debt is $17,876, and the state total is nearly $6 billion. Student borrowers report that they find themselves sinking deeper into debt, as the companies that service their loans pile on fees and penalties, driving them to the brink of default.

Wealthy people bribing colleges to admit their children is a scandal, but saddling millions of families with debt they can’t pay back is worse. Access to education is supposed to be a great equalizer. The current student loan practices, however, are enforcing the advantages of the haves over the have-nots.

At the very least, student borrowers need protection from outrageous lending practices. Ultimately, we all need a reckoning from a system that puts so many limits on opportunity.

 

 

 

 

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