Saturday, January 16, 2010

Letter from President Obama

There were several positive events that occurred last week. First, I was more than pleased when Michele Y. Brown from the Department of Education finally responded to my email(s). In my final note to her, I pointed out Deanne Loonin's recent suggestions here and here, and said that if the Department of Education were to even put a few of these proposals into place for current debtors, many people who comprise the indentured educated class would experience immediate and much-needed relief.

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. 

Sincerely


Barack Obama


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 . . .



A lovely signature to see at the bottom of this important letter!
 







29 comments:

Anonymous said...

Have had trouble several times (before today) trying to leave comments here. Is there a less rigorous program?

Anonymous said...

Thank you,
Great work Cryn and congatz on a letter suitable for framing.
10.000 blessings,
Terry

Anonymous said...

I applaud all your efforts C Cryn - and i agree, i am encouraged by current efforts to make education easier on future students (although i have to say, Perkins Loans, etc. probably make up a a max of 5% of my debt), but i do SO encourage anyone to impress on Pres. Obama the massive debt those of us who have gone to college in the last 20 years have incurred, which has never really been addressed. I started college in 1987, at a private school, and then it cost 11K a year. I finished at two state schools for undergrad and grad (still taking out about 18K a year in loans). The same school probably costs 25 or 30K now. I wonder who can possibly afford that.

Joshua Aasgaard said...

Congratulations on getting better than a form letter from the White House!

In your reply, please mention that there are thousands/millions? of former students including people like my and my wife in our 40s who don't qualify for the Income Base Repayment Plan because we have FFEL consolidated loans. What's more some of who are teachers are findng our states reniging on their promise of $5,000 or $17,500 to teachers who work in high-needs urban schools or in Special Education. If during the 5 years it takes to qualify for this forgiveness program you change from Guaranteed Student Loans to FFEL, you no longer qualify for the higher amount, even though it is sometimes impossible to make these payments in some urban areas because of low teacher. When we were in New Orleans this was the case. In St. Louis, where we are now it's not.

Nonetheless, the Income Based Repayment Plan still excludes many who are struggle. Plus, the more important side of your proposal is missing: ECONOMIC STIMULOUS. What would happen if my family suddenly had $800/mo (that's our current student loan debt ($600/mo for my wife, $200/mo for mine.

With $9600 year in stimulous over 30 years, that's a lot more prosperity that can go back into the economy.

Keep up the good work. And where is your paypal link so that concerned students can donate to OUR cause. :-)

Sincerely,

Delver said...

Cryn, President Obama has gone on record as saying, "there isn't much we can do looking back" regarding student loans. I do not believe that his Administration's policy includes helping current borrowers. Recall that his Administration proactively filed a brief in the recent United Student Aid, Inc. v. Espinosa Supreme Court student loan bankruptcy case, fighting Espinosa's discharge tooth-and-nail. If Obama had wanted to help, he would have filed a brief that favored Espinosa's discharge. At the very least, he would have stayed out of it. Instead, through the Espinosa brief, he has made the Administration's position against discharge of student loan debt crystal clear. And while he likes to brag that he financed his Harvard education with student loans, Obama is by no means the typical in-over-your-head borrower as he had no trouble paying his loans off ahead of time.

I'm thrilled that he sent you a letter, and perhaps it is a ray of light. I hope you use your new contact with the President to let him know that America is about to lose one of its best and brightest to Korea.

Anonymous said...

This is excellent news. Thank you for your amazing and dedicated work in this area. I too hope that I can find a good and secure job soon. I'd even be happy to have a good job OR a secure job. As a child of a working-class (i.e. poverty status) family who now has a $300k advanced degree and cannot find a job except at a call center, student debt relief-- or alternatively finding a way to pay my $3k monthly student loan bills-- continues to be the main focus of my life. Thank you Ms. Johannsen. Sincerely, Sabrina Fladness (fellow-presidential-letter-sender)

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

Good remarks, Joshua. I will make a point to bring up your remarks in my follow-up letter, and am very glad you shared.

I wouldn't dare ask for donations from any of you. I did that at one point as a promotional writer for another movement, and it just felt wrong. It is your cause - through and through (of course, I count myself among the indentured educated class, but have chosen to be an advocate in a public sense). In any event, I am doing all this work pro-bono and don't expect a dime from those who are struggling just to make ends meet.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

Delver - many thanks for sharing. As I said in conversations about this letter, I remain skeptical and your comments about Espinosa's case is damning.

I am confident that President Obama admitted that if he had written his memoir he and his wife Michelle would still be in debt up to their ears. So, I guess becoming even President of the United States isn't enough to pay off your student loan debt!

We'll see if this letter opens up more lines of communication. I cannot take all the credit. I know that so many of you have been writing and writing and writing - we all need to continue to do so!

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

Sabrina -

I agree. It's a good sign and gives us reason to hope. But we all need to keep our efforts up and continue to write to President Obama. You and all the others are the ones who ought to be thanked for your hard work and willingness to get involved and write letters - thanks for sharing, and I hope we can collectively help you and hundreds of thousands of others like you find a good AND secure job. Hang in there, Sabrina.

Spekkio said...

I hate to say it, but it reads like a form letter to me. I'll be interested to hear if you hear from the President again.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

You're right - it has a tone like a form letter. Nevertheless, it was about financing higher education and it was signed by him. We'll see if I hear from him again. I'm making a point to get something in writing out of the Dept of Ed. So . . . stay tuned.

Leni Weisl said...

No matter whether it had a tone of a form letter or not, I'm excited. I appreciate all the work you do. I am trying to get the IBR while hoping the law will change. I cannot make the payment of 1823.00 per/mo they request.

John S of Boston said...

Congratulations on getting the attention of the Oval Office. I do see the President's acknowledgement of you stated concern, but I'm not sure he, well, gets it, as the saying goes. The issue is not the availability (in and of itself) of education loans. Rather, it's the unrealistic rate of return required via income to service the loans already dispensed.

Additionally, and for me more importantly, there is insufficient attention given to the issue of lingering, long-term, or essentially zombie debt that is really the mechanism by which the educated have become the indentured. The President refers to an income-based repayment plan, but that plan is not widely available (barring a court-imposed garnisment of wages, which is indeed income-based).

Matthew Wright said...

What would happen if all students simultaneously stopped paying their debt, en masse? Would the nation grind to a halt? I think not... Rather, as a non-violent progressive protest action, it would accomplish (besides a ding on our collective credit records, which we collectively deserve) sending a message that the people who have been hoodwinked into bad debt situations do not have to take it, and it would force both the lending and education industries to force reform. Just a thought. Not advocating rebellion or anything, just trying to point out that we all submit to the rules of the institutions we have in place by choosing to submit to them. I think the letter from Obama proves that he's willing to listen, but at the same time the focus is more on keeping the current system working, encouraging new students to potentially fall into the same traps that I did with my school.

When an admissions rep for a school promises the moon, then later on the student find himself $25,000 under water and the school's promises don't hold up, and the courses he's earned don't transfer to other schools, and the school's accredidation is in question and there may be collusion between the lender and the college, and he has to start over at a Junior College and repeat essentially the same courses, and the fix is in, and he knows it, who can that student go to?

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

Matthew - thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Rest assured, I will make a point in my follow-up letter to President Obama to state what you put so well: we need to focus on current borrowers. I'd also like to ask him, the DoE (I'll be cc-ing Duncan and Shireman), as well as TICAS.org this question: who presently represents the debtors? I'd gladly sit in on discussions about the state of funding higher education, and I can think of a number of others who could do the same thing (half a dozen or more come to mind). Our voice(s) ought to have a place in these discussions too.

I've been doing all this work on a pro bono basis, and I'd gladly sit in on meetings with no pay. I just want our voice included! We deserve that, right? Isn't that the democratic method of doing these sorts of things?

I am outlining my response to Pres. Obam now, but wanted to receive as much feedback from those who are drowning in debt. I think it's critical that your remarks be included in my response. It's the least I can do.

In the meantime, we - the indentured education class - are having an interesting discussion about creating some sort of student loan debt relief fund. I am not sure what it would look like, but it's good to talk about these sorts of options.

We obviously want some solutions to this serious situation. If we could set up funds that would enable other debtors to put food on the table for those who are in bad shape (I am getting disturbing messages from people who are telling me that they are having to steal toilet paper from their job and aren't sure if they'll be able to feed themselves next month!). I like what Mother Teresa once said. She said something like, "don't rely upon your leaders to solve a problem, start solving it with the individual." So, perhaps we could start something on our end. Of course, the student lending crisis does need to be solved on a larger, bureaucratic scale, so that's where I will diverge from her quote. Nevertheless, it's a good point . . .

I know I'd be the first to donate a small share. So, perhaps if something were established that would ensure those who have fallen off the grid and facing serious financial problems, we could hail it as one small victory on our end. But that doesn't mean we give up on fighting for what we deserve.

This battle is far from over. Thanks to the hard work of so many people who have helped me on this campaign (I know that there are countless readers who have been sending letters week after to week to their representatives, to the President, to the DoE), we are getting closer to something good . . .

This Administration has the opportunity NOW to help millions of borrowers (who owe private and federal loans), and we need to keep reminding them of that.

I think the student lending crisis could end up being a hot political issue, and for those who will be up for re-election, it could do wonders for their campaigns if they were to listen to our voices.

Sherry said...

Department of Education's Income Based Repayment Plan - What a joke that program is!!! I hope he's doing more than that!

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

I think they're trying to expand that program, and let's hope that they do.

Anonymous said...

How about where it says would you like to contribute to so and so's campaign it should say would you like to donate to the Education Debtors Fund and let them pay for thier own campaign. I'm sure you would get more contributions, and I would be the first to donate.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

That sounds like a good plan. Where ought that be posted? If you've read much on this blog, you'll find that I have talked about trying to run. At this point, however, I am so disillusioned, that I think it's best to continue doing things on the outside of the system.

Anonymous said...

The old promissory note loans that have no amount on them, just a signature should be thrown in the recycle bin. To many times the amount has well exceeded the request with out the students consent or knowledge. Only to find out that you must pay whatever they say the amount is even after the Education Administration has been informed of the problem

Anonymous said...

The Education Debtors Fund should be a check box on your tax form,and this fund or account should be handled by someone like you or a trusted group of people who has nothing to gain. As long as there not elected, we already know that 85% of the time we choose the wrong people for the job, and i'm an optimist.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

I like that idea. I am actually working a legal defense fund. I have an attorney who is on my Board, and he is going to be taking the lead for that. In addition, I am trying to get a grant to open a small office in D.C.

Anonymous said...

Thats good I'll be your first case, I just sent you an email about an hour ago and would love to discuss this with you further.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

Was the email about a son with debt? If that's you, I tried to reply, but the email was sent back to me. :(

Anonymous said...

It was and Uncle Sam must be having computer problems again because I'm still in my office 2 1/2 hours after quiting time. Contrary to popular belief some federal employees actually work for a living.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

Oh, trust me, I know that many federal employees work hard. I know plenty of you! Please send me an email when you get home, because I'd like to have a conversation that way. I hope you get home soon.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

I sent you another email and it didn't work.

Anonymous said...

If I get home to late I will email you wednesday after 15:00 Hrs. I am on a 24 Hr. shift that day and have all night to talk or email or whatever they call what we're doing.

Anonymous said...

Our society as a whole no matter your race, gender, or financial status is showing a caveat of impending discontent towards this administration for bailing out billionaires instead of the average American. I mean could you even imagine the economic boost that could have rocked this country if they would have used that money to pay off all the student loans. Land, Homes, vehicles, Stocks and Bonds would have been purchased at a rate never before seen in the history of this great nation. Everyone would have profited to include the billionaires and the federal government. Does the administration not understand that these student loans stand in the way of jobs, loans, and financial prowess? Do they not comprehend that we are not spending the money because we are financially stifled by these exaggerated education loans that are crippling our will to participate monetarily in the future of this country. The presidents’ financial advisor should be fired or worse, hell if an uneducated blue collar worker such as me could figure this out why couldn’t they. Apparently the enormous amount of money they spent on their own education did not pay off.