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September 21, 2014

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Heard Elsewhere:

A better move on college debt relief

The following editorial appeared in the Kansas City Star:

Outlandish student loan debt is forcing millions of young Americans to live with the brakes on. President Barack Obama last week announced a step that will help some of those who need help the most.

About 5 million borrowers with high debt and low incomes will be newly eligible for the “pay as you earn” program, which caps loan payments at 10 percent of the borrowers’ monthly discretionary income. Young people looking for work or stranded in poorly paying jobs will get some breathing room.

Though welcome, Obama’s announcement will help only a small number of the millions of Americans saddled with a total $1.2 trillion worth of student debt. And a great deal of outreach will be needed. Only about 200,000 of 17.5 million borrowers already eligible for a pay-as-you-work plan are taking advantage of the opportunity.

A bill that failed in Congress on Wednesday would have had more of an impact. Senate Democrats pushed to allow borrowers to refinance their loans at lower rates. Unlike Obama’s proposal, this bill would also have brought relief to graduates who borrowed from private sources rather than the government.

Unfortunately, Republicans in the Senate and the House opposed this proposal, partly because it would be financed by higher taxes on some investment income. The bill failed to clear a procedural hurdle that would have brought it up for consideration.

Debt relief efforts will help, but what really is needed are tough measures to halt runaway college costs and to crack down on the predatory abuses of the for-profit college sector.

Schools at all levels have to be mindful of administrative bloat and unseemly executive salaries. State legislatures are correct to expect fiscal responsibility from their public institutions, but they must also finance schools adequately.

The biggest drivers of student debt are the for-profit colleges, many of which are shameless in their quest to enroll low-income students in order to secure government-backed grants and loans. Students leave school swamped by debt and with slim prospects for attaining decent-paying jobs.

The Obama administration is considering rules to prevent the worst offenders from securing students’ federal aid. Similar efforts in the past have buckled under the industry’s fierce lobbying. Let’s hope the administration and Congress show more backbone this time.

Easing the way for young people to pay off oppressive loans is good policy. Enabling students to graduate from college with more manageable debt loads is even better.

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