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Washington Post: Why is a Betsy DeVos appointee quitting his job and calling for student debt forgiveness?

Oct. 28, 2019 at 11:04 a.m. EDT

There is, perhaps, no greater sign of just how far the movement to forgive the nation’s $1.5 trillion in student loan debt has come than the fact that a Trump Education Department official is now jumping on the bandwagon.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that A. Wayne Johnson, who was briefly in charge of the Office of Federal Student Aid before heading up an initiative to improve the student loan repayment process, is quitting his job to run for Senate in Georgia. His platform? Student debt relief. Johnson is proposing forgiving the first $50,000 in student debt, with no income limit on the recipient. Under his plan, the government would also offer each student a grant of up to the same amount for college or vocational education tuition.

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This places Johnson, who plans on running in the Republican primary, squarely in the middle of the left wing of the Democratic Party when it comes to student debt. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), after all, also proposes forgiving up to $50,000, but with income restrictions on who can file for relief. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), on the other hand, wants to forgive everything, no matter the amount borrowed.

Johnson said his time at the Education Department left him convinced that all too many student loan debtors would never pay down their balance. As a result, he wants to call a halt to it. “The time for us has come to end and stop the insanity,” he told the Journal.

This is either an act of political courage or stunning cynicism — or perhaps, both. After all, Johnson is a creature of the student loan and credit industry, having, among other things, founded a private student loan refinancing company before joining the Trump administration. Moreover, one reason so many people are stuck with debt they can’t pay off is because of actions either undertaken or permitted by Johnson’s now-former employer, Betsy DeVos and the Education Department. Johnson praised DeVos in an interview with The Post on Thursday.

On Thursday evening, a federal judge issued a contempt finding and fined the Education Department $100,000 for not doing enough to stop the student loan servicing companies from continuing to collect money owed on loans from former students of Corinthian Colleges, a deceptive for-profit institution that closed in 2015. Under DeVos, the Education Department has been attempting to limit debt forgiveness for this cohort.

To be clear, many of the sins can’t fully be laid at DeVos’s door. The ballooning student debt balance is a problem years in the making. The issue in the public service debt forgiveness program — where well over 90 percent of the teachers, police officers, librarians and other public and nonprofit employees who thought they met the requirement haven’t received their promised relief — originated a decade back. Nonetheless, DeVos’s Education Department has done little to solve the issue, referring to the problem as “regrettable" in recent congressional testimony.

New York University professor Caitlin Zaloom’s recent book, “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost,” demonstrates how the financial burden of college and the debt that it all too often engenders is putting strain on our most intimate familial relationships. Student debt is contributing to a falloff in homeownership among millennials. It reduces retirement savings among people under 30, the period when, thanks to compound interest, the money set aside for post-work life will go the furthest. There are an increasing number of people older than 65 making payments on student debt, for either their own education or that of their children, grandchildren or other relatives.

This is the environment that Johnson’s new position on student debt forgiveness needs to be considered in. Surveys show broad appeal for the idea of forgiving at least some portion of the mass of student debt. One poll, conducted in the spring, found Warren’s debt cancellation initiative was more popular among the middle-aged than those under 30. Another, released by Hill-HarrisX last month, found that a majority of voters supported the idea. It attracted the interest of three-fourths of Democrats, just under 60 percent of independents and — astonishingly — 40 percent of Republicans. Just over 50 percent of those earning at least $75,000 came out in favor of the idea. Johnson’s move might well be a stunt — the Journal called his campaign “a long-shot” — but it could end up as one with surprising political resonance.

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