A Scalia acolyte confirmed on the high court. The press secretary saying Hitler wasn't that bad. United Airlines officials acting like the SS. The president tweeting antagonistically at North Korea, while finding time to help defund Planned Parenthood. A mega-bomb dropped on Afghanistan. This was the week that was, so it's understandable that a quietly disheartening piece of mid-April news squeaked by with nary a reaction or Twitter outrage: Contentious Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — a woman who never took out a student loan in her life — rescinded Obama-era guidelines on college aid, undercutting a planned centralized system for repayment and, more troubling, handed power back to student loan vendors, including those known for shady business practices.
Currently, the millions of U.S. students who graduate with student loan debt — a staggering 71 percent, even back in 2012 — deal with a myriad number of different companies to negotiate payments, seek deferments, and make other financial arrangements. Obama and his last Education secretary, John B. King Jr., wanted a centralized portal where all loan recipients could access information quickly and easily (think HealthCare.gov, but rolled out more deftly). The government was in the process of picking a company to run the website until DeVos put the brakes on the plan last week.
DeVos went further than that, though. From The New York Times: "Critics of Ms. DeVos’s move this week are especially concerned about a particular piece of guidance from the Obama administration she struck down: that the Education Department should place great weight on a company’s track record when selecting student loan vendors, and should steer away from companies with histories of shoddy service or other problems."
The secretary's actions mean companies like Navient — accused in recent lawsuits of being a predatory operation — could still manage billions in student loans. If corporate cheerleader DeVos reconsiders the plan to streamline loan servicing, she could hand the giant contract over to Navient, which allegedly "mishandled loan payments, buried critical information in fine print and set obstacles for borrowers trying to release co-signers from their loans, among other failings, according to the consumer bureau’s legal filing," according to the Times.
After navigating that hellish system for decades, I recently paid off my approximately $10,000 student loan just a couple years ago. The last payment was an obviously jubilant occasion; I struggled to make a dent in the loans (plural) throughout my 20s, simultaneously flummoxed by terms like "principal" (Googling wasn't really a thing in the late '90s, especially when you don't have a home computer) and intimidated by a five-digit debt.
With the years of deferments and minuscule monthly payments, it took me until my mid-30s to pay those suckers off. I was one of the lucky ones, though; my father covered the bulk of my public college education. Millions of kids are on their own when it comes to higher ed, and the situation is often more perilous for LGBT youth, some of whom find themselves cut off after coming out.
I held off telling my parents I was gay until after I graduated college, for fear of financial reprisal. My worries were unfounded — my parents were accepting — but I was fortunate to grow up with a liberal family in a mostly secular community.
So, how do we protect the younger generations from being saddled with $500 loan payments for the first few decades of their working lives? Bombarding DeVos's office with furious emails and voice mails, none of which she'll actually see or hear, is a noble, but mostly futile endeavor. Instead, I suggest contributing to a group that aids queer kids not as lucky as I was; the ones who found themselves completely on their own when it came to paying for college. Not long after I threw my cap in the air, the Point Foundation was launched to provide college scholarships and mentoring opportunities for deserving LGBT students. The organization has grown tremendously since, offering grants in excess of $18 million.
Funding higher education is not a sexy subject — certainly less so than North Korean nukes or Russian dossiers, but it's possibly more vital. If the American population was better educated, we'd never be in a situation where Betsy DeVos is making decisions for our children. Until she's shown the door, we have to pick up the slack. The more you know (cue shooting star).
NEAL BROVERMAN is the executive editor of The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @nbroverman.