Student Loan Industry: Move Along, Nothing to See Here

Higher Ed Watch:

The student loan industry must think we all have very short memories. As part of their effort to derail legislation that would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, lenders have been sharing talking points with Senators and staff arguing that the “pay for play” scandals that engulfed the student loan industry in 2007 were much ado about nothing.

“After thorough investigations by Congress and various state Attorneys General, there were no findings that any employee or a lending institution or school broke any laws, nor were there any criminal penalties levied,” lenders wrote in talking points — which Higher Ed Watch has obtained — that were distributed to Senate staff.

While that statement may have been technically true at the time it was first made, it’s a brazen sweeping under the rug of a scandal that outraged the American public, particularly college students and their parents. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo did charge about a dozen colleges and lenders, such as loan giants Sallie Mae and Nelnet, with violating federal and state laws, and filed lawsuits against them. But instead of fighting Cuomo, the student loan companies and schools quickly reached settlement agreements with his office that required them to change their conduct. In other words, they were not confident enough about the legality of their practices to defend them in court.

The lenders’ claim is particularly cavalier given that they were only able to avoid being penalized because of who was guarding the henhouse. Bush Administration appointees at the U.S. Department of Education with strong ties to the student loan industry simply looked the other way while lenders and college financial aid offices engaged in kickback schemes.

For any huge lobby—whether it be student loan providers, banks, or health insurers, there is a huge and vital difference between two different popular schools of thought: that the organizations in question are inherently corrupt, greedy, and parasitical, or that the organizations in question suffered from a few “bad apples” scattered her and there. The more people who believe the latter, the easier it is for the industries in question to continue doing what they were doing.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.