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Senator Warns Of A Student Loan Bubble

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, presents a Senate report on for-profit colleges in 2012. He wants changes to the federal student loan system.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, presents a Senate report on for-profit colleges in 2012. He wants changes to the federal student loan system.

Each year, the federal government provides more than $150 billion in grants and loans to help students pay for college. And while a bachelor's degree has become increasingly valuable, young people are taking on record levels of debt to earn that degree.

That's the backdrop for a Senate hearing Thursday on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the 1965 law that governs the federal financial aid system. As part of a series of conversations about paying for college, Morning Edition spoke with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who will run the hearing.

The chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that for-profit, public and private colleges and universities should be more accountable for the federal student aid they receive.

Interview Highlights

On income inequality in higher education

Right now, if you are a high-income, low performance student, you have an 80 percent chance of going to college. If you are a low-income student, but high-performing with a B or better average, you only have a 20 percent chance of going to college. That's inexcusable.

On student debt's economic impact

There are a lot of indications that this is a drag on our economy. In other words, students who have graduated from college, just starting work can't afford to buy a new house, can't afford to invest in other things. ... How are we going to make it easier for students to go to college and get an education without taking on this huge debt burden?

On investigating for-profit colleges

We found that a lot of these for-profit schools were going after the poorest students so they could get the maximum Pell Grants and loans. A lot of the students were not getting a good education; they were dropping out and ... defaulting. But the for-profits got to keep the money.

Comparing for-profit colleges and the savings-and-loan crisis

I think that's an apt comparison. The housing program started out with, I think, good intentions. But then financiers and others found out how to make a lot of money, so they created this housing bubble. I think what we have now is another bubble in the student loan sector with these for-profit colleges.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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