Skip to main content

Who's to blame for student debt crisis

By Ben Cohen and Edward Erikson, Special to CNN
August 30, 2013 -- Updated 1038 GMT (1838 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ben Cohen, Edward Erikson: Are we serious about solving student debt crisis?
  • Cohen, Erikson: The root of the problem is influence of money in politics
  • Students suffer but Sallie Mae profits while owning 15% of student debt, they say
  • Cohen, Erikson: Corporations like Sallie Mae lobby Congress; we need to change that

Editor's note: Ben Cohen is co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and founder and Head Stamper at the Stamp Stampede, which aims to build a movement to amend the Constitution to get big money out of politics. Edward Erikson is a senior associate for MacWilliams Sanders Communication.

(CNN) -- As the new school year approaches, President Obama has been traveling around talking about the high cost of education. In a speech given on August 22 in Syracuse, New York, he laid out a plan to rein in the costs, describing affordable and accessible education as "Washington's highest priority."

But the education system isn't broken -- it's "fixed." If we're serious about tackling the issue of affordable education and student debt, we need to strike at the root of the problem -- the influence of money in politics.

Private corporations like Sallie Mae -- which own 15% or $162.5 billion dollars of total student debt -- rake in private-island-purchasing profits while students suffer.

Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen

It's impossible to be on a college campus -- especially a state university -- and not notice the impact of the student debt crisis. The debt weighs on our students. It is as if you could see it in their slumping postures and staggering gaits as they haul boulders and lug chains from class to class. Approximately 37 million students currently hold debt, averaging $27,500 per person and totaling over $1.1 trillion.

Edward Erikson
Edward Erikson

Saddled with debt, students are giving up on the idea of the American Dream. You know, like the idea that you and your buddy can open up a small ice cream shop in an old gas station and grow it into a multimillion dollar business that cares for the community and delights the world.

The truth is, if Jerry and I had had $27,000 of debt in 1978, we would never have taken the risk of opening our first scoop shop. More likely than not, we would have been underemployed and buried in back payments.

Obama gets it. In Syracuse, he said: "The idea used to be that here in America anybody could make it. ... And, unfortunately, what's happened is it's gotten tougher for a lot of folks. So we've got to reverse these trends."

Analysis of president's college plan
GOP: We need a fix on student loans

But while Obama talks about creating policies that will benefit the middle class, corporations like Sallie Mae are dedicated to preserving the status quo by showering Capitol Hill with cash.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Sallie Mae has donated over $1.26 million to federal candidates and parties in the last four election cycles and bankrolled $1.93 million dollars lobbying Congress in the first half 2013.

During that time, Congress crafted a student loan bill that tied interest rates to financial markets, which President Obama signed it into law in August. While in the short term, the bill prevented interest rates from doubling, students are more vulnerable in face of an adjustable interest rate that could top 8.5%.

Corporations like Sallie Mae borrow at dirt cheap interest rates (subsidized between .23% and .34%) from the Federal Home Loan banks. In contrast, undergraduate students borrow at an adjustable 3.85% and graduate students borrow at an adjustable 5.4%.

That's a sweetheart deal for Sallie Mae which raked in $2.5 billion in interest payments from student loans last year, but a terrible deal for students.

In a letter to Sallie Mae's CEO, Sen. Elizabeth Warren wrote: "While Sallie Mae is finding unique ways to profit from government programs, its borrowers are paying interest rates that are far in excess of the low cost of funds supported by the U.S. taxpayers."

It's time to dam the deluge of cash and corporate influence in Washington once and for all. Whether you're a college student, a debt holder, a parent or simply someone concerned about the future of our country, you can help.

There is a stampede rumbling across the country to amend the Constitution to declare: 1) Money is not free speech; and 2) Corporation are not people.

At StampStampede.org, we're helping to build that movement by legally stamping messages like "Not to be Used for Bribing Politicians" on our nation's currency to spread the word and get money out of politics. Every bill is seen by 875 people, so the more stamped bills that enter circulation, the more movement will grow. And it's growing.

Thanks to the leadership by groups like People for the American Way, Move to Amend, Common Cause, Free Speech for People and Public Citizen, 16 states have passed referendums calling on Congress to take action and over 150 members of Congress support the amendment strategy.

As the new school semester begins, pick up a stamp and help take back our campus and take back Congress. This is our future and our fight to win.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ben Cohen and Edward Erikson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT