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Now or Later

Last week we mentioned the possibility that President-elect Joe Biden could use executive authority to simply cancel some student debt. At that moment — just seven days ago — it was getting a bit of attention, but this week a tsunami of policy and political analysis washed ashore.

The idea got covered in the Washington Post. More than 200 organizations urged him to take such action on his first day. We saw smart scholarly threads about it from Judith Scott-Clayton (Columbia U.) who argued it was a “trust and moral accountability issue” and from Susan Dynarski (Michigan) who stressed that while the majority of loan dollars are held by high-income people, the majority of loan borrowers are much less well off.

Economists told us it had a poor stimulus effect. People dusted off Justin Wolfers’ piece from 2011 arguing that this was the “Worst Idea Ever.” Others said it shouldn’t be compared to the perfect student-loan reform, just to what is possible with a Democratic president.

Here’s the little-discussed thing I hadn’t thought as much about — we’re already canceling student loans. We’re just doing it very, very slowly.

Because that’s ultimately what’s going to happen for millions of the borrowers now in some form of income-driven repayment. Depending on the program, they’re going to keep making some partial payment for 10 or 20 years and then the government is going to forgive the rest of the loan.

In fact, roughly three of every five student loans given out between 2013 and 2015 now have a higher balance than when they were originated. Pause over that stat because I think we can gloss over it too quickly. My mortgage balance got smaller (sure, maybe not a lot) over the last seven years. Your 2014 car loan got smaller, probably even got paid off a couple years ago. But nearly 60 percent of those student loans are bigger than when they started.

This is the real debt crisis, according to Marshall Steinbaum, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Utah — a crisis of non-repayment:

“The policy question is then not whether to cancel student debt, but how? Are we going to rely on increasing [income-driven repayment] and thus kick the ball further into the future, ruining more and more lives as we do so, while still not actually collecting on the government’s loans and potentially imposing a large tax liability when the debt is finally cancelled? Or can we honestly confront and solve a past policy failure in the present by cancelling debt now (and not taxing it), to prevent the debt spiral from getting any worse and rectifying the damage student debt does to household wealth?”

Here’s how he sees it: any debate about how best to structure debt cancellation has to be compared to a baseline of “escalating debt peonage, exacerbating wealth inequality, followed by inevitable cancellation.”

Of course, Twitter experts can keep debating the economics of this up and down. What about the guy soon to be in charge? Asked this week whether he would take executive action on loan forgiveness, Joe Biden declined to say — stressing instead that he supported proposed House legislation to forgive $10,000 in loans and promising to improve management of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

— Scott Smallwood

+ More on student debt: This thread by Casey Parks is a powerful reminder of just how much emotional weight some people carry because of their student-loan debt.

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Collaborative Models for Local News

The Medill Local News Initiative published a story this week that examines how national digital networks are transforming local news.

“This trend, a twist on the system of legacy newspaper chains, is sometimes described as a ‘network model’ or a ‘hub-and-spoke approach,’” wrote Mark Jacob. “Some of the national organizations are going head-to-head with the local outlets, but others are nonprofits looking to work with and bolster the existing local journalism.”

We’re one of those nonprofits. ProPublica, Chalkbeat, and Open Campus are featured in the story as collaborative models — organizations with public-interest missions that seek to be force multipliers in local markets.

The conversation with Jacob also gave Sara a chance to trot out one of our main talking points: about the power we see in combining the strengths of national news organizations that know a subject matter deeply with the strengths of local news organizations that know a place deeply.

The in-depth reporting that results delivers better information and more impact. And it can help rebuild trust with local communities.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

• New international enrollment data shouldn’t just alarm colleges, Karin Fischer writes in latitude(s) this week, it should be a gut check for college towns, too.

The amount international students contributed to the American economy shrank in 2019 by more than 4 percent, to $39 billion. It’s the first time that the dollar amount has declined since NAFSA: Association of International Educators began calculating economic-impact data more than 20 years ago.

• A lot of focus this fall has been on important enrollment declines — mostly at the undergraduate level, and especially at community colleges. But there’s one area where enrollments are up: Graduate schools.

Amy Morona writes about small private colleges in Northeast Ohio that are launching new programs, hoping to draw students and revenue.

• A new partnership in Denver seeks to create more equity in access to college courses by changing how high-school students can qualify, Jason Gonzales reports.

In Denver Public Schools, access to those courses has depended on a standardized test or a grade-point average. But now students may qualify by successfully completing a series of assignments and tests, called a capstone, designed to demonstrate mastery of a subject.


Higher Ed Workers with the Lowest Pay Suffer Highest Job Losses during Pandemic
Colleges are shedding jobs at an unprecedented rate. And some of the lowest-paid workers in higher education are bearing the brunt of the layoffs, mirroring broader trends of the most unequal recession in modern U.S. history. (

More than 100,000 Low-Income California College Students Lack Internet Access
Uneven access to technology poses a barrier to students’ learning as colleges begin planning for a spring semester online. (

First Student Diagnosed with COVID-19 Describes Little University Support
Sudeep Yedulla — the first student on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus to contract COVID-19 — said “everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong.” (

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