On top of Brown's response (which was cc-ed to Sec. Arne Duncan and Deputy Undersecretary of Education Robert Shireman), I also had a productive and powerful conversation with the well-known intellectual and author David Korten. As a result of our discussion about the student lending crisis, he has put me in touch with several "young" (as Dr. Korten described me!) activists who are doing great things in the U.S. I look forward to future conversations with him and forging relationships with these civic-minded individuals with whom he put me in touch.
Little did I know, however, that Friday evening would prove to be a night I would never forget. It began with the most mundane of activities - I trotted out to my mailbox expecting to collect a handful of bills, final magazines, and so forth. We were heading to our lovely pals' apartment in Alexandria for homemade margaritas and tacos. As soon as I opened the box I noticed a plain, yet elegant envelope. On the upper right-hand side the address was in a nice blue. It read (as most of you know): THE WHITE HOUSE, WASHINGTON, DC 20500. Moreover, my own name and address was hand-written by a human being (wow). Plus, it was made out in the same way I sign off on official letters of business, i.e., it was written out to Ms. C. Cryn Johannsen.
I had a pretty good feeling that this note would be more than just a generic form letter. But I also feared being disappointed, so I put it aside for a few minutes in my darkened car.
I turned on the light and inspected the envelope again. Yep, I thought, that's your name and it's handwritten. I turned off the light. I turned on the light. And after about 10 minutes I finally opened it.
It was, indeed, signed by the President and read:
"Thank you for contacting me about financing higher education. I appreciate hearing your perspective.
Students loans have helped generations of Americans afford an education but all too often this assistance has left graduates saddled with a mountain of debt that is difficult to overcome. I have heard from countless Americans who are struggling with loan repayment. As someone who relied on student loans to help pay for my education, I understand the challenges many graduates face, and I am committed to addressing this critical issue.
Expanding college financial aid is a top priority for my Administration. Through investments in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we have boosted Pell Grants by $500 and offered a $2,500 tuition tax credit to assist millions of students. My 2010 Budget proposes to make these changes permanent and increase the number of Perkins Loans so that students can continue to borrowing from the government at low interest rates. Additionally, students may be eligible to reduce their monthly student loan payments by participating in the Department of Education's Income Based Repayment Plan. We are also simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and restructuring our Nation's student loan programs to make them more reliable, efficient, and simple for students.
Ultimately, higher education in America remains one of the best investments for our future success. Debt repayment is never easy, particularly in troubled economic times, but a good education can mean a more secure job and higher earnings. As I work to improve higher education financing, I am devoted to rebuilding our Nation's economy so that it creates the jobs that Americans seek.
We can work to ensure that America will once again have the higher proportion of graduates in the world by 2020. To learn more about these steps my Administration is taking to help Americans succeed in higher education, please visit: StudentAid.Ed.gov . or Opportunity.gov. Thank you again for writing.
I applaud President Obama for sending me an actual letter of substance regarding my concerns about the student lending crisis. However, I think there is too much focus on how things will be improved for "prospective" students, and not enough attention on current borrowers. I am sending President Obama a follow-up letter, and will be cc-ing Sec. Duncan and Deputy Undersecretary Shireman. I am thankful that he acknowledged my worries, but will insist that much more needs to be done to ensure that those who are drowning in student loan debt are helped.
My hunch is that President Obama has a sincere interest in the fact that so many of us are struggling to pay our loans (he said so himself in his letter). It is also obvious that he knows exactly what it means to have to take out student loans. (His predecessor, on the other hand, would not know a thing about how most college students have to fund their educations). But I think we must ask a serious question about the cost of higher education in the U.S. - why have we accepted, as a society, that the cost of tuition continues to go up each year? Why must students take out such high loans to cover the cost of state schools and, yes, community colleges? If President Obama is committed to educating more Americans, his Administration must take a serious look at the reasons why we continue to overcharge students and allow student lenders like Sallie Mae and Nelnet to have a hand in the pot.
We also need to have solutions in place that will provide current debtors with immediate relief. In short, his Administration must make a point to tend to current debtors who have both federal and private loan debt.
I only wish I could find a secure and good job in this country, as President Obama mentions in his closing remarks. Nevertheless, I wish to make it clear again to the indentured educated class that while I may be in Korea, my advocacy work will not end. Your futures mean far too much to me to simply give up. I will continue to advocate, write letters, etc. It is my intention to receive more letters like this one from President Obama and others in hia Administration. This . . . is just the beginning . . .