Last week, Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education did something uncharacteristic. In an extraordinary announcement, the Department argued that states do not have authority to oversee student loan companies operating in their states and that regulation should be left to the federal government.
The irony of an administration that often touts small government and states rights trying to crack down on state consumer protection was not lost on many consumer advocates. They were quick to see this for what it is: an attempt by a federal department to take pressure off student loan servicers exerted by state attorneys general who have been trying to make sure borrowers and students have basic consumer protections and legal avenues of recourse when loan companies steer them into the wrong products or simply fall down on the job.
This move is but the latest in a series of actions by DeVos and the Education Department that side with student loan servicers and for-profit colleges rather than the students who have been defrauded or loaded up with debt they cannot hope to repay. The problem for Secretary DeVos and the Trump administration is that they are dangerously out of touch with an American public that is increasingly wondering why so many people need to deal with the burden of student loans in the first place.
New public opinion research by Demos and Lake Research Partners finds broad and deep support for policies that would eliminate the need for many students to take on debt at all. More than 90 percent of American adults surveyed view student debt as a somewhat or very serious problem, and they overwhelmingly cited the price tag when asked about the biggest barriers standing between students and a degree or credential.
More striking though, is that 78 percent of adults support a policy agenda that would guarantee that all students graduate without debt from a public two- or four-year college; while 71 percent of adults favor proposals to make public college tuition-free, regardless of income. And nearly two-thirds favor ending all student loan debt for borrowers who have been paying off their loans for five years—a far more generous program than currently exists for borrowers of federal student loans. Unsurprisingly, support for bold solutions on college affordability is highest among those people most affected by student debt, young Americans and people of color and: Voters under 30 and nine in ten African Americans support a guarantee of debt-free public college.
These views make sense, since the burden of student loans is particularly acute for millennials, but it also falls most heavily on borrowers of color. In 26 states, the net price of college—that is, the amount students and families must come up with even after receiving a Pell Grant or other financial aid—is more than half of the typical black family’s income each year. And white students have persistent advantages well beyond college—not only are white students less likely to borrow for college, but white households with only a high school education have the same average net worth as black college-educated households.
That said, even traditionally conservative audiences are receptive to going big to address this problem: Seventy percent of Republicans favor a guarantee of college without debt—including 50 percent who give the idea a 10 out of 10. And 73 percent of white non-college educated adults—in other words, the vaunted “white working class”—give the policy a thumbs-up.
All of this is a response to a series of broken promises—that public investment in higher education would meet the demand for talent and skills, and that higher education would be a clear ladder upward for anyone, regardless of their financial situation. The idea that one should be able to work their way through college is not controversial, but it’s also no longer possible. In many states, students must work what amounts to a full-time job to pay for school if they do not want to take on debt. And with a Department of Education increasingly bent on protecting servicers and shady colleges over students, students face a much greater level of risk than previous generations endured.
Rather than step in the way of states that are well within their legal rights to protect students and consumers, the Department of Education could listen and offer a real guarantee of debt relief for those who are struggling to pay their loans and make ends meet. This type of proposal would include keeping promises to students who were told their loans would be cancelled after attending predatory and failing colleges, as well as things like allowing student loans to be easily discharged in bankruptcy, and holding student loan servicers accountable when they provide borrowers with bum information.
But it would also require the Trump administration to make a concerted effort to invest in everything from community colleges and career education, to public colleges and universities nationwide that have seen per-student state funding decline over the last several decades. For an administration that pays a great deal of lip service to the working class, making these investments would only be meeting working-class families where they already are.