Penance & Student Loans

 

Chappaquiddick Island, MA:  Shed 6/22/13
Chappaquiddick Island, MA: Shed 6/22/13

          Night before last, I slowly made headway through the humidity after stuffing my hold at Annapurna.  As I passed St. John the Evangelist in North Cambridge, my eyes caught the lowest part of its signboard: 

PENANCE
SATURDAY 3 to 3:30
Other times by appointment.

 The sign’s unintended perspective on the current brevity of suffering for our sins put the day’s news reports into just the right frame.

***

           Take Jonathan Weisman’s ‘Democratic Rifts Stymie Senate Bill on Student Loan Rates’ in the New York Times:

           A bipartisan Senate coalition on Wednesday blocked a Democratic proposal to retroactively cut interest rates on higher education loans in half, leaving any student loan rescue in doubt and laying bare divisions among Democrats about how to resolve the dispute.

 Now there’s a lede paragraph!

           Bipartisan coalition … Democratic proposal … divisions among Democrats.  Two sentences later, Weisman allows that the coalition consisted of ‘Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, Angus King, independent of Maine’ and 46 Senators of the American Taliban.  In the majority, 52 Democrats, a number insufficient to defeat this ‘coalition of the willing’ and its filibuster.

           Weisman and his editor, if any, should call St. John the Evangelist to reserve hair shirts and flagella.  But a half hour seems the maximum for penance these days, though the only newspaper left standing deserves to have more meted out.

***

           And then there’s the substance of the student loan controversy.  Well, not really the substance.  The substance is the systematic disinvestment in America’s future extorted in the name of deficit reduction.

          Student loans are just a highly visible, individually painful, part of a much larger tragedy.

          Now, to return to our story:  Senate Democrats have capitulated to a proposal first mooted by our Compromiser in Chief.

          Reports Shahien Nasiripour in ‘Student Loan Deal Reached In Senate Threatens To Raise Future Costs’ in the Huffington Post (Kudos to both writer and publisher for the most comprehensive, comprehensible description of what’s at stake.)

Rates on new student loans from the Department of Education … would be pegged to the yield on the 10-year Treasury note [2.57 percent late Wednesday]. Undergraduates would pay 1.8 percentage points above the government’s cost to borrow for 10 years. Graduate students would pay 3.8 percentage points above the rate. Parents would pay 4.5 percentage points above the benchmark, officials said.

           Do the math here.  With Fed rates predicted to rise with an improving economy, the interest rates for new loans look pretty scarey, since students and their parents will be locked into the rate when the economy tanks again.

           The current rates are hardly generous – except when compared to credit card rates.  Says Nasiripour:

Interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans, meant for students from moderate-income and low-income households, had been at fixed at 3.4 percent the last few years before doubling to 6.8 percent on July 1 as a result of previous legislation. Unsubsidized Stafford loans, used by other undergraduates and graduate students, are set at 6.8 percent. PLUS loans, used by parents of undergraduates and graduate students who exhaust Stafford borrowing limits, are fixed at 7.9 percent. Congress has been setting the interest rates, as opposed to allowing the rate to fluctuate with market borrowing costs [as it will under the compromise legislation].

           The ‘bipartisan coalition’ and their enablers will have time to repent as they try to figure out how to avoid increasing the deficit by cutting loan rates in the short run whilst preventing reducing the deficit with increased loan rates in the long term.

           To this nadir our political process has sunk.

 ***

           But don’t think this treatment is reserved for those needing loans.

          On Tuesday, I paid on line with a credit card a tuition bill at the University of Minnesota.  For this I was charged a 2.75% fee by something called Moneris.  UM website says it doesn’t share in the fee.

           Trawling the internet, I found a Moneris press release.  It’s nine years old, but I can’t find anything that says things have changed.  Here are its first three paragraphs:

Students at Southern Methodist University (SMU) … andRollins College … can now quickly pay tuition and fees with their credit cards thanks to the Moneris Solutions and infiNET Solutions Service Charge program.

 …Under the agreements, SMU and Rollins College will begin processing tuition and fee payments, through the Internet only, using the Service Charge program offered by the Moneris-infiNET Solutions relationship….

 Moneris will provide credit card processing services through infiNET Solution’s QuikPAY(R) service, which is a fully integrated automated billing, payment and commerce solution for the higher education market. The Service Charge program, will allow SMU and Rollins College the ability to offer their students and families the convenience of paying their tuition and fee statements online with a credit card.

          Put differently, students have no choice but to use the internet to pay their fees and incur the ‘service charge’.  Yet another ‘convenience fee’.

***

           Leave aside valid questions, such as ‘for what?’ and ‘how much does it actually cost?’  How the hell did we get to where students and their parents are little more than blood meals for ticks?  And what of the Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever the ticks give in return for their feast?  There is the real question in the student loan debate.

Consider the bathetic words of one of the Baby Boom generation’s most beloved songs, ‘Teach Your Children’ (1970):

And you,
Of tender years,
Can’t know the fears
That your elders grew by,
And so please help
Them with your youth,
They seek the truth
Before they can die.

           So, ‘the fears … your elders grew by’:  Their children personified them.  They knew it.  Their fears quashed the truth – and the possibility of another generation like their children’s – with Drug Wars and straight jackets – financial and others – on education.

Another of Graham Nash’s lyrics from the same song proved more prophetic:

Teach
Your children well
Their father’s hell
Did slowly go by

As the Baby Boom generation wanes, it owes its children and grandchildren to put right these wrongs aimed at it.

          That would be a penance of almost sufficient duration and severity for our sins.

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