In the newsroom, tyros learn to frame stories about issues through the eyes and experiences of individuals.  “Names is news,” we were often told.

Enter Hilary Manuel, who was featured Wednesday in a front-page story about a bill to establish a state office to help former students with their loan debt.  She finished graduate school $96,000 in debt.

Manuel testified on a bill that would create a student-loan ombudsman.  The bill from Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Sagadahoc also would ban some practices by agencies managing student loans and would make those agencies buy state licenses and follow rules set out by the feds.  It appears from news reports that the feds don’t enforce their own loan rules.

This story contrasts with news two weeks ago that extremely well-heeled people had bought spots illegally for their children in supposedly prestigious schools such as Yale, USC, Georgetown, UCLA, Stanford and Texas.  That story was about indictments of 50 people in an admission-buying scandal.  So far, three of the 50 have pleaded guilty.

Here are two differences between the stories.  First, 44 million people, not just 50, are involved.  They are $1.5 trillion in debt for college loans, among the 70 percent who leave college in debt.  In Maine, 200,000 people owe $6 billion.  Second, this story isn’t about just so-called elite schools.  It’s about nearly all schools.  Student loans are the second deepest pile of debt after home mortgages.

The unfolding crisis in college lending may be a disastrous side effect of a worthy idea.  Most students aren’t from wealthy backgrounds, so they need loans to attend college.  When they get to campus, they may get as good an education as at any elite school.  The loans help pay for that education.


Dr. Alice Budge, whose husband was my boss at a newspaper in Ohio, taught English at Youngstown State University.  She believed YSU students got as good an education as any others because YSU professors are not in the lab all the time, too busy to see students.  And fewer kids at YSU have to take courses in huge lecture halls, taught by graduate assistants, not professors.  And a YSU student can find all the resources she needs.  Experienced teachers who know their subjects, large library, nearby field trips.

Count me among the few who agree with her.  The difference is that State College Tech and Normal Academy isn’t a ticket into the upper class.  Stanford and Yale punch your ticket to the upper class.  SCT&NA doesn’t.  You still have to prove yourself.

When the government starts a program, such as loans for students, at least two things happen. Bureaucrats hire on, and their first instinct is always to protect their jobs.  Grow the agency. Second, people of various moralities in the private sector dissect the program to find openings through which they can slip and grab a chunk of the money.

When I was farming, I received catalogs from companies that said they had “everything you need to comply with OSHA (or whatever federal agency).”  Sometimes it seemed the company existed only because an agency regulated such activities as mine.  Farming, slaughtering, poultry processing.  You name it, someone is there to regulate it.

Except, it seems, in college loans.  The catch in the federal college loan programs is that students don’t borrow directly from the government.  They borrow federal money through private agencies.  Without knowing the history of these federally backed loans, I can’t say for sure, but I’ll bet the loans were directed through private agencies so more conservative members of Congress would sign on.  Can you say Affordable Care Act?

With these loan programs, a third thing happened.  So much money became available and the lending agencies were more or less unaccountable that colleges were free to goose prices. Forbes magazine reported in July that since 1989, the average cost of four years of college has risen to $104,480.  In 1989, it was $52,892 (adjusted for inflation).


A fourth thing happened, too.  Legislatures began cutting funds to state colleges.  When I taught at the University of Maine (1980-83), the state ponied up 76 percent of Orono’s budget. That figure is now about 34 percent.  Still, Maine is ahead of other states.  A professor I know at Stockton University in New Jersey, a state school created as a “public ivy,” (highly selective for top students), told me it’s hard to find Stockton’s president on campus.  The president spends most of his time on the road, shaking the trees for money.  New Jersey funds only 13 percent of Stockton’s budget.

A few fortunate students get through college without accruing piles of debt.  These are students in well-heeled colleges such as Bowdoin and Colby, which can guarantee that if they admit an applicant and the applicant does the work, the student will graduate with no debt.  The list of schools making this guarantee is only about 25 or 30, but it is growing.

On the other end, two Maine colleges rank high in the amount of debt laid on the shoulders of students.  The University of New England and Maine Maritime Academy make several such lists, including one published by Forbes, sometimes in the top 10.

Can the system be reformed so students aren’t in hock for life yet colleges can fulfill their missions?  Can the agencies be stopped from adding fees and interest at every turn?  Can colleges price themselves within rather than above the ability to pay?  Will states live up to their moral obligation to fund higher education?

Don’t bet on it.  But you can bet that a federal loan program will endure, no matter what the legislature does with Vitelli’s bill.  As Ronald Reagan (not my favorite), put it, “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.”

In 1969, Bob Neal took a $200 federal loan for grad school.  Bureaucrats managed to foul it up, and UMKC withheld his MA until he could prove again that he had paid it off.

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