Commencement season is prime time for inspiring and touching stories of perseverance, celebration and achievement. Graduates who overcame overwhelming obstacles. Folks who, despite their advancing years, finally walked across the stage to accept their diplomas. Or, sadly, the diploma that had to be awarded posthumously.
Over the years, the Telegraph Herald has brought you these stories from the tri-state area, and other media organizations do the same from their corners of the country.
Each of these stories is special in its own way. However, considering its magnanimity and magnitude, in 2019 it will be tough to top the story of Robert F. Smith.
A billionaire investor and philanthropist, Smith on May 19 delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta, the world’s only historically black college or university exclusively for men.
If they were like most young Americans wearing caps and gowns, the graduates were probably nodding off, daydreaming or wondering how long Mr. Smith would take at the podium.
However, Smith no doubt grabbed their attention — and that of the entire country — when he said this: “ This is my class, 2019. My family is going to create a grant to eliminate your student loans.”
That’s right: Smith pledged to pay off the student loan debt — in full — for each of the 400 members of the Morehouse College Class of 2019. That’s a gift worth about $40 million.
Smith’s idea is that, given this head start, without the burden of student loans, the newly minted Morehouse alumni will be better positioned to “pay it forward” and help others someday.
The gift is incredibly generous and one that could pay dividends for decades to come. It’s a remarkable feel-good story. However, when viewed in the broader context of student debt, it is a bit sobering.
The 400-some Morehouse grads stand in stunning contrast to the more than 44 million people still carrying student loan debt. The balance on their loans totals about $1.5 trillion. Student loans have risen to second place in all consumer debt categories — more than auto loans and credit cards.
Why does that matter? People deep in the financial hole due to student loans get a late start, if any start at all, in fully participating in the economy. They must postpone or curtail such economy-boosting actions as buying a house, purchasing a car or frequenting shops and restaurants.
No one put a gun to anyone’s head, forcing students to borrow for college. But for many people hoping to get ahead in the world, they need a college degree, and to afford higher education they have little choice but to take on debt.
Making sure students understand the obligations and pitfalls of borrowing might help sidestep some problems, but so could some government assistance to ease the burden and to promote certain important professions.
That’s why it’s troubling to see what is happening — more accurately, what is not happening — in the U.S. Department of Education.
For example, tens of thousands of public servants with at least a decade in those roles — firefighters, teachers and nurses among them — have sought to have their federal student loans forgiven under a temporary program.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the number of applicants who have successfully run the bureaucratic gauntlet for loan forgiveness is 287. That’s all. Their debt totaled $10.6 million — a fraction of the $700 million authorized by Congress.
Meanwhile, for the third straight year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed ending the loan forgiveness program for public servants and doing away with subsidized loans for low-income students.
On top of that, from last June through December, the department did not act on a single application for loan relief filed by students claiming they were defrauded by their colleges. Not one.
Many of those suspect institutions are for-profit schools, and they have a friend in DeVos, who is working to relax government oversight and regulation over them.
Oh, and by the way, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently stated that the Education Department is impeding the bureau’s efforts to police the student loan industry. National Public Radio, which first reported on the situation, noted this is occurring amid lawsuits alleging that widespread wrongdoing by student loan companies is costing some borrowers thousands of dollars.
So, whose side is DeVos on?
Student debt and fraud foisted upon students are serious issues, and they won’t go away with a wave of Robert Smith’s checkbook. They must be tackled on several fronts, and it’s time for federal officials to take these serious issues seriously.