Beto O’Rourke, candidate for president and naughty Great Dane who keeps jumping up on the counter, was asked about student debt last night at an event at Keene State College in New Hampshire. Other candidates’ proposals to counter student debt have so far ranged from tuition-free public colleges (Bernie Sanders) to a scintillating-sounding “tax advantaged savings accounts” (Amy Klobuchar). So what is O’Rourke’s big idea?
Well, reader, I don’t know quite what to tell you. From his answer, it appears that O’Rourke proposed something that already exists. Sorry for the wall of text, but that’s what he does (video is available here, emphasis mine):
The first thing that we should do is stop digging the hole. Let’s make sure that every graduating high school senior is not just college ready but is career ready, let’s make sure that we make investments, that connect with community colleges, where at 18 years old without taking a dime of debt on, you might be able to graduate with an associate’s degree under your belt, for one year towards a welding certification that second year hooking up with a local union starting that apprenticeship program, by the time you’re a journeyman you’re making 30, 35 bucks, if you’re in Texas, you’re making six figures as a welder, an in demand, high skilled, high wage profession. We’re not producing enough trained Americans to fill right now.
If you are willing to do some public service and you’ve got that debt on your back already, let’s find a way to forgive it.
Unfortunately in the budget the president just announced, in order to finance this wall with Mexico, it’ll cost you only $30 billion, that’ll require us to take our fellow Americans’ land through eminent domain, their farms, their ranches, their homesteads, because it will not be built on the international boundary line, which is the center channel of the Rio Grande river, it’ll be built sometimes miles into the interior on our fellow Americans’ property, he’s taking resources out of the student loan forgiveness and financing program.
Here’s the deal: There are 49,000 funded, authorized, unfilled positions at the VA, we lose 20 veterans a day by their own hands, 16 of those 20 were unable or unwilling for whatever reason to go to the VA and see that provider who can make the life or death difference for them. If you’re wanting to work at that VA in your hometown, or a community that needs your intellectual capital and talent, let’s forgive that debt. If you’re willing to teach school in a community that needs you, let’s forgive that debt. If you’re willing to invest in a community that’s losing talent and young people, let’s invest in you. So stop digging a hole and make it easier to get an education, or a career, and let’s make sure you don’t accrue debt by attending a publicly-financing two or four-year institution. And if you already have that debt right now, let’s refinance it at a lower rate or forgive it if you’re willing to commit to public service.
Let’s break this down. First, O’Rourke seems to be proposing “investments” in community college so people can graduate debt-free and train to become welders or other skilled jobs, because we’re “not producing enough trained Americans to fill right now.” This is good: In 2016, the Pew Trusts reported that though the amount of debt taken on by community college students is much lower, they still default at relatively high rates, in part because they tend to come from poorer backgrounds in the first place. If Beto is proposing allowing community college students to graduate without “a dime of debt,” that’s good. It’s hard to say what he’s specifically proposing—are only welders meant to be able to graduate debt-free? Can someone study history or social work or early childhood education and do the same? (We’ve reached out to O’Rourke’s campaign for comment and will update if we receive it.)
But it’s the next proposal where things get a bit weird. O’Rourke says: “If you are willing to do some public service and you’ve got that debt on your back already, let’s find a way to forgive it.” There is already a program to forgive debt for people who go into public service—although it is incredibly onerous and an outrageous scam on borrowers, denying 99 percent of applications, often by telling borrowers years after they already entered public service jobs that they don’t qualify or have the wrong kind of repayment plan.
It is not clear, however, whether O’Rourke knows much about this from the rest of his answer. He says, for example, that if people take one of the many unfilled jobs at their local Veterans Affairs office, their student debt should be forgiven. Veterans Affairs is a government agency, and would thus already qualify under the public service loan forgiveness program. The VA also has its own student debt repayment program, offering up to $10,000 a year. Again, your chance of actually getting the government to forgive that loan is vanishingly low, but that isn’t what O’Rourke was actually saying—he didn’t say, let’s reform the existing program to make sure people who do public service jobs get their debt forgiven.
He also suggested teaching “school in a community that needs you.” What he seems to be talking about is some kind of Teach for America-style program—a very bad thing to style your ideas after, for what it’s worth—in which new teachers would get their loans forgiven for teaching in poor communities. Again, there is also an existing program to forgive some debt for teachers who teach in low-income schools, though it’s limited to $17,500. So on this issue, it does sound like O’Rourke is proposing an expansion of an existing program, without acknowledging the program already exists.
All this would be one thing if O’Rourke hadn’t completely failed to offer more specifics when he was asked to by local journalist Jake Lahut, of the Keene Sentinel:
None of this helps clarify at all what O’Rourke would do to expand the existing public service loan forgiveness program. He mentions the VA again, which already qualifies under the existing (shitty) program, and teaching, for which there is already something of a program, but does not say I would expand/universalize/reform those programs to make sure everyone receives the loan forgiveness they deserve or I would remove the cap on teacher loan forgiveness. He outlines some other forms of public service—improving public lands, conservation corps—but doesn’t actually say that those would qualify for public service loan forgiveness under his plan. He just reportedly said “those are forms of public service that we should be able to expect from one another,” an empty, meaningless platitude that’s meant to sound like policy when it definitely isn’t.
Beto O’Rourke clearly knows the PSLF program exists, as he referenced Trump’s budget raiding its funding (which, again, are almost never actually spent on forgiving people’s loans) in his answer. So it is baffling that he wouldn’t explain or provide specifics on how he would change the program to make it better, and instead provided a specific example—working at the VA—that already qualifies under the program, if the program ever actually paid out the way it should.
O’Rourke has a lot of work to do to prove that he has specific policy solutions. Proposing something that already exists without saying that he would expand or improve it is not the way to do that.