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              揭密美國學生貸:危機從何而來?

              揭密美國學生貸:危機從何而來?

              Josh Mitchell 2021年08月22日
              當前,美國學生債務規模約為1.7萬億美元,這個數字已經超過了加拿大2020年的國內生產總值。

              學生債務危機源于過去60年的一系列事件和決策。然而,在2007年至2009年的經濟蕭條期以及隨后的恢復期,這個危機突然被激化。2012年,美國學生貸款債務總額突破1萬億美元大關,超過了信用卡債務和車貸。

              這一時期恰逢美國第一位黑人總統貝拉克·奧巴馬的任期。奧巴馬對高等教育在改善家庭環境以及美國經濟方面所發揮的重要作用深信不疑,即便在談論學生債務給家庭造成的負擔時亦表達了同樣的觀點。

              美國當時正處于轉型期,這里不僅僅涉及政治和經濟領域,同時還包括文化,尤其是高等教育領域。這一時期,為了追逐向上層進軍的美國夢,美國人的債務水平達到了前所未有的高度。不過在奧巴馬第二任期結束時,美國人已經不再像之前那樣,將高等教育看作是通往財務自由的必經之路。

              盡管學生債務在所有人群中都出現了激增,但本世紀增速最快的莫過于黑人家庭,至少在那些通過借貸來接受高等教育的家庭存在這種情況。不妨看看我的新書《債務陷阱:學生貸款如何成了國家災難》(The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe)(西蒙與舒斯特公司出版),其中有一個章節便通過霍華德大學(Howard University)一位年輕黑人大學生的經歷,刻畫了這一現實,而霍華德大學是美國歷史上最知名的黑人大學。

              *****

              2006年8月,一個陽光明媚的周五下午,布蘭登敬畏地看著霍華德大學的磚砌門柱,這所坐落于華盛頓特區的黑人大學有著悠久的歷史。自孩提以來,他便將這里視為圣地。如今,他即將跨入校園,成為該校的一名學生。

              這天,布蘭登專為支付大學一年級的學費而來。就在他滿懷憧憬跨入校園大門時,心頭閃過一絲疑慮。他不禁自問道,“我真的屬于這里嗎?”自己所站立的地方正是瑟古德·馬歇爾、佐拉·尼爾·赫斯頓、托妮·莫里森和肖恩·康布斯曾經走過的地方。想到這里,他再次拾回了信心。

              他對自己說,我走到了這里,我成功了。

              布蘭登來自于一個普通家庭。他與三個兄妹在弗吉尼亞州匹茲堡和佐治亞州奧古斯塔長大,一直由在軍隊服役的單身母親及其祖母撫養。他的哥哥姐姐向他灌輸了上帝、家庭和教育的重要性。雖然家境貧寒,但他當時對此并沒有什么感覺。

              由于不善社交和語言障礙,他自小便十分有禮貌,而且十分謙遜,似乎連自我價值感都沒有。他每周去三次教堂,而且在高中拿到了A等和B等成績。畢業時,他渴望成為一名軍人,因此加入了海軍。他當時駐扎在俄克拉荷馬市,負責通訊工作,就是在兩扇裝有密碼鎖的大門后看守密閉控制室,每12小時倒一次班。

              在海軍的服役經歷讓他感到愈發慮和孤獨。布蘭登擔心自己在緊急情況下會因為語言障礙而無法正常使用麥克風進行交流,他也因此而出現了驚恐發作癥。兩年后,他光榮退伍,并決定嘗試去考大學。他的曾祖母是一名退休的醫院清潔工,她在高中時輟學了,隨后拿到了美國高中同等學歷證書(GED)。曾祖母從小便敦促布蘭登一定要去上大學。布蘭登說:“很多人認為,如果你上大學,那么你就會獲得各種機會,我的曾祖母便是其中之一?!?

              對于美國的眾多黑人家庭來說,就神秘性而言,沒有學校能夠與霍華德大學相比。該校由傳教士于1867年成立,是美國內戰后設立的數百所致力于培養黑人的學校之一,很多美國黑人都因為其膚色而被其他大學拒之門外。在成立的第一個五年期間,霍華德大學教授了數萬名獲得自由的奴隸。2006年,在美國排名約前100位有著悠久歷史的現存黑人大學中,霍華德大學名列榜首。

              盡管布蘭登在高中拿到了不俗的成績,但他深知他被霍華德大學選中的幾率依然十分渺茫。在每年申請的數萬名學生中,僅有約30%被學校錄取。當他撥打招生辦電話后,一位女士告訴他已經被學校錄取,他不敢相信自己的耳朵,還請這位女士又重復了一遍。

              布蘭登在學生債務增長伊始進入了大學。在他第一學期結束之際,美國學生債務總額已經達到了5000億美元,是美國三年前水平的兩倍。其規模迅速攀升至美國信用卡貸款和車貸同等水平。媒體和決策者也意識到了這個問題。作家安雅·卡門尼茨通過其書作《一代人的債務》(Generation Debt)挑明了這個問題。該書在布蘭登就讀大一時出版。

              學生債務出現飆升的部分原因在于大量美國人都走入了大學校門。在布蘭登入學時,大學畢業生工資溢價已經升至歷史最高水平,因為雇主逐漸要求求職者必須持有學士學位,而數年前這些崗位并沒有這一要求。2006年,美國本科生數量達到了1500萬,布蘭登只是其中之一。

              像布蘭登這樣的學生是大學擴招的推手。他們的家庭條件極差,屬于非洲裔或西班牙裔人,而且是家里第一個上大學的人。他們大多數都會就讀招生門檻低或不設門檻的學校,例如社區大學、盈利性學校以及多所歷史悠久的黑人大學,這些學校所面向的學生往往缺乏就讀好大學所需的成績或分數,但這些學校會為學生提供大量攀爬美國經濟階梯的機會。

              其中的大多數學生都依靠舉債上大學。大學學費在20世紀90年代的增速是通脹的三倍,而且始終高于家庭收入的增速。這對布蘭登這樣鮮有或毫無存款的赤貧家庭帶來的沖擊最大。那些可以就讀最知名大學(比如常青藤學校)的貧困生通常能夠免費求學,因為這些學校有著豐厚的家底,例如大型基金和校友捐贈,可以免除這些學生的學費。然而,大多數大學非但沒有這些資源,還嚴重依賴于學費來支付各類開支,其中就包括來自于貧困生的學費。

              與喬治華盛頓大學(George Washington University)和喬治城大學(Georgetown University)等華盛頓的其他學校相比,霍華德大學的學費算是便宜的了,但對布蘭登來說,2.8萬美元一年(含生活成本)的費用依然是一筆不小的數字。布蘭登拿到了佩爾助學金(Pell Grants),而且能夠享受《軍人安置法案》(G.I. Bill)的部分福利。然而,這些計劃提供的資金連支付就讀眾多州立大學所需的學費都不夠,就更不用說霍華德大學這種私立學校了。為了填補學費缺口,布蘭登同時借了近4萬美元的聯邦貸款以及6萬美元的沙利美(Sallie Mae)私人貸款。在畢業時,受利率推動,其債務總額增長了數萬美元。

              在大二時,也就是2007年9月底,一位教授給布蘭登及其同學布置了一項任務,出席在校園內舉辦的演講。當演講者走上講臺時,人們都從椅子上站了起來。貝拉克·奧巴馬笑了笑,信心十足地站在講臺上,發表了一篇光鮮亮麗的演講,布蘭登感受到了人群中不絕于耳的崇拜聲。

              布蘭登對這位來自于伊利諾伊州、將要參加總統競選的參議員早有耳聞。與布蘭登一樣,奧巴馬也是一個黑人,由單身母親養大,而且通過一次又一次的借貸讀完了大學和法學院。奧巴馬在他的競選活動期間來到了霍華德大學,希望借此活動重振因房產市場的崩塌而陷入了低迷的美國經濟。奧巴馬談到了刑法的改革,并提到要讓社會變得更加公平。最重要的是,他希望為社會上條件最差的人群創造機會,尤其是全球范圍內像布蘭登這樣的學生。

              《債務陷阱:學生貸款如何成了國家災難》,作者:喬什·米切爾。圖片來源:Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

              2009年1月20日寒冷的日間,也就是那場霍華德大學的演講過去一年多后,奧巴馬在美國國會大廈西側的露天平臺上正式宣誓就任美國第44任總統。當時美國的經濟一塌糊涂。房產泡沫的破滅(這個虛幻的時期,標志性現象就是房產價格的飆升)導致金融市場停滯不前,也讓整個經濟陷入了混亂。選民推選奧巴馬帶領美國走出這場大蕭條之后最嚴重的危機。

              房產危機源于寬松的信貸和法規以及人們對美國夢的向往。抵押貸款出借方認為房產價值只會一路上揚,他們多年來向借款人發放的貸款數額越來越多,而后者的信貸狀況和收入卻顯示他們基本無力償還。在2007和2008年,五分之一的貸款都流向了次貸領域。聯邦監管方則對此視而不見。房利美(Fannie Mae)和房地美(Freddie Mac)這兩家政府支持的住房抵押貸款公司購買了其中很多按揭貸款,繼而為銀行提供了廉價的現金。貸款機構使用復雜的金融工具遮蓋了貸款的風險,并把房屋貸款以證券的形式出售給投資者。這場繁榮的背后存在著這樣一個信念:房產對于窮人和中產階級來說是一種不錯的投資。

              房產價格確實上漲了,而且借款人短時間內還有能力支付其月供,但好景不長。2006年,一批房主開始拖欠月供,銀行意識到其賬面存在一大堆無法得到償還的債務。房屋價格上升的太高、太快。最終,美國國會出手救市,斥資數千億美元用于為金融機構贖身,并穩定經濟。

              泡沫的破滅給民眾帶來了毀滅性的打擊。數千萬人無家可歸,其中大多數都是因為抵押品贖回權的喪失。近900萬人因為經濟蕭條而失去了工作。所有城市和城鎮都受到了嚴重沖擊。大銀行、汽車公司以及小企業大量破產。股市一落千丈。

              受沖擊最嚴重的家庭莫過于黑人、西班牙裔家庭,尤其是父母沒有念過大學的家庭。那些本應受到購房恩惠的民眾卻成為了受害者。當選領導人以及私營領域大肆鼓勵美國民眾購買房產的舉措不僅沒有降低不公平性,反而讓其愈演愈烈。

              奧巴馬將這場危機看作是經濟災難與道德災難的結合體。作為20世紀90年代末和21世紀初的伊利諾伊州參議員,他很早便開始批評這種巧取豪奪式的放貸行為,這種行為通常是指銀行向不知情的借款人發放高風險貸款,而有鑒于這些借款人的收入或月供規模,他們償還貸款的可能性并不高。參議員伊麗莎白·沃倫(馬薩諸塞州民主黨)曾經在2003年的一場政治籌資活動上見過奧巴馬,當時他正在競選美國參議員席位,而沃倫則是哈佛大學(Harvard University)消費融資領域的教授。在與沃倫交談時,奧巴馬使用了巧取豪奪式借貸一詞。沃倫對《美國新聞與世界報道》(U.S. News & World Report)說:“他一直說個不停,我連插話的機會都沒有?!?/p>

              2009年2月,也就是奧巴馬就任美國總統一個月之后,他在國會聯席會議上發表首次講話。期間,他介紹了讓美國擺脫嚴重下滑并回歸繁榮的計劃。他說,美國將通過教育走出危機。他指出:“在這個全球化的經濟中,人們可出售的最有價值的技能便是自身的知識,良好的教育不再只是通往機會的大門,而是前提?!?/p>

              為了讓美國擁有全球受教育程度最高的勞動力,他呼吁每一位美國民眾至少都要在大學學習一年時間,不管是四年的人文科學學校還是社區大學,都是向這一宏偉目標邁進。20世紀90年代初,美國大學畢業生占其勞動力的比例在全球名列前茅,然而在新世紀,其他國家在這一方面已經超過了美國。就像林登·約翰遜擔心俄羅斯在教育和全球領導地位方面會超越美國一樣,奧巴馬擔心像韓國這樣的國家在新世紀會出現同樣的情況。他信誓旦旦地說:“到2020年,美國大學畢業生占勞動力的比例將再次躍居首位?!?/p>

              奧巴馬稱其目標有助于讓美國民眾時刻心懷出人頭地的美好愿望,與比爾·克林頓1995年提升私有房主數量的目標相呼應。奧巴馬曾經在2008年的美國總統大選中通過傳遞充滿希望和變革的信息,激勵了數千萬的追隨者。在美國首位黑人總統的領導下,美國逐漸放棄了美國夢的一個基石——自有住房,并加倍押注另一個基石——高等教育,而這個基石依然得靠債務。

              在奧巴馬發表演講數周之后,奧巴馬的首要經濟顧問拉里·薩默斯在一個多云的下午來到了波士頓的芬威球場(Fenway Park),坐到了看臺席上。那時正值4月底,紅襪隊(Red Sox)正在與紐約洋基隊(New York Yankees)打比賽。曾經在克林頓時期做過美國財政部部長的薩默斯負責執掌此屆政府的相關舉措,以幫助美國走出經濟蕭條。

              他將目光投向了坐在他旁邊的哈佛大學經濟學家拉里·卡茨,并詢問他是否有辦法讓更多的美國民眾進入大學??ù南氲搅?300萬失業工人,其中很多人都來自于建造、制造和挖礦這類藍領行業??ù膶λ_默斯說:“先得看看錢從哪來?!?/p>

              失業保險是資金來源的一個選擇。大多數失業員工會從政府失業辦公室領取失業金??ù恼f,得想個辦法讓他們進入大學。聽到這一理念,薩默斯感到非常振奮。因雨延賽期間,他給奧巴馬的幕僚長拉姆·伊曼紐爾打了個電話。數天后,為了讓美國民眾走入大學校園,美國政府推出了有史以來最有力的舉措。

              奧巴馬政府敦促各州失業辦公室官員給每位領取失業金的人員致信,告訴他們如果進入當地大學就讀的話便能夠拿到資助,例如佩爾助學金(Pell Grants)。其中一封信寫道:“盡管經濟有所恢復,但我們可以利用眼下這個好時機來改善自身技能,并為未來更強勁的經濟復蘇做好準備。有研究表明,受過更多教育和培訓的員工能夠獲得更高的工資,而且工作也更有保障?!?/p>

              奧巴馬的顧問認為,讓民眾走進大學不僅有助于員工自身,還有助于經濟,從短期和長期來看都是如此。美國嚴重依賴于消費支出來助推經濟活動的開展,也就是購買各種物品,從汽車、百貨一直到健康檢查和教育。奧巴馬的經濟團隊認為,大學生在學費方面的開支也是推動經濟再次增長的方式之一。

              奧巴馬的高等教育領域白宮首席顧問詹姆斯·科瓦爾說:“首要任務是擺脫經濟危機。如果我們為低收入學生發放獎學金,他們就會消費,繼而惠及整個經濟。我們正在尋找可以迅速花錢而不是存錢的項目,以及能夠讓人們迅速拿到這些錢的項目?!?/p>

              這一大規模的舉措需要大量的資金支持。股市的崩盤以及經濟衰退讓美國民眾數萬億美元的財富蒸發殆盡,大多數家庭基本都沒有可以用于支付學費的存款。盡管奧巴馬希望調高針對貧困家庭的獎學金,但他的計劃不可避免地將導致學生債務的激增。

              2009年,由奧巴馬支持、美國國會通過的大范圍經濟刺激法案將中等收入學生在一年之內可獲取的佩爾助學金額度,從4700美元增至約5600美元。然而,這筆資金連支付公共社區大學的部分學費都不夠,而社區大學是最便宜的高等教育機構。平均來說,在2010年,如果就讀公立的兩年學制大學,即便計算上到手的資助,一名學生仍然需要支付1.2萬美元的學費和生活費,這個數字占到了普通家庭收入的約五分之一。

              在就讀法學院時,奧巴馬自己也依賴于學生貸款,他曾經多次在競選活動中提及這件事情。他與米歇爾·奧巴馬在就讀哈佛法學院(Harvard Law School)時每人都借貸了4萬美元。二人在數年前通過一本書作交易才還完了這筆貸款。

              與其前任的諸位總統一樣,奧巴馬發現自己受到了聯邦赤字的拖累。在小布什政府時期,政府開支因為美國發動的兩場戰爭而出現了飆升。用納稅人的錢救贖華爾街和汽車公司的舉動引發了民粹主義騷亂,又稱“茶黨運動”(Tea Party movement),其宗旨就是反對龐大的政府開支。奧巴馬本人也對不斷上升的權利保障計劃開支感到擔憂。

              而且他還有其他重要事情需要應對。盡管民主黨控制著參議院和眾議院,但奧巴馬將其早期的政治資本用在了其他動議上,即經濟復蘇法案和大范圍的醫療法案,因此并未大幅調高獎學金數額,以緩解美國民眾對學生債的依賴。

              奧巴馬沿用了兩黨慣用的方式,將學生債作為為其他動議融資的工具。2010年,他對自己標志性的醫療法案《平價醫療法案》(Affordable Care Act)追加了一項條款,以取消《學生貸款擔?!罚℅uaranteed Student Loan)計劃,該計劃自1965年以來便為私營出借人提供的學生擔保提供保險服務。終止該計劃將在未來10年內為納稅人節約600億美元的資金,因為政府無需再向銀行支付其借貸成本的差價。2010年以后的所有聯邦貸款都將依據比爾·克林頓時期通過的《直接貸款》(Direct Loan)計劃,由美國財政部發放。

              奧巴馬在2010年3月簽署這一法案時說:“我們得向銀行支付數十億美元的費用,我們難以承擔這種浪費。我們得把這筆資金投給學生?!比欢?,并非所有節省下來的費用都流向了學生,一些資金流向了奧巴馬的全國性醫療法案。共和黨指責奧巴馬是在將學生貸款計劃“國有化”。一些人認為,此舉通過取消“核貸”環節(銀行檢查借款人信貸歷史、收入和其他細節的流程,以確定他們是否有可能違約。),鼓勵向學生無止盡的發放貸款。這是一個具有誤導性的主張,因為它并沒有明確貸款是由財政部還是銀行發放。資質標準都是相同的,而且門檻極低。奧巴馬的這一舉措只不過是取消了中間環節。然而,該舉措存在一個根本性的缺陷:在它所構建的這個體系中,大學每年無需任何條件便可獲取數百億美元的納稅人稅金。這個體系讓大學可以在20世紀八九十年代和本世紀00年代肆意地提升學費。通過鼓勵所有美國民眾去大學念書(如果需要的話可以使用貸款),奧巴馬進一步打開了赤字的龍頭。

              作者喬什·米切爾。圖片來源:Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

              放水舉措即帶來了機遇也帶來了麻煩。此舉讓數千萬學生走進了大學校門。例如布蘭登就走進了霍華德大學的校門,其畢業生(其中很多都來自于貧困家庭)有望獲得高薪工作。然而對布蘭登以及數千萬其他學生來說,它還意味著異常沉重的債務負擔。

              布蘭德在霍華德大學一直處于焦慮之中。最令他感到擔憂的便是其學生貸款債務。他每年會借數萬美元,其中既有聯邦貸款,也有沙利美的私人貸款,然后焦慮地看著債務因為應計利息而不斷增加。

              當布蘭登入學時,他并未意識到自己不得不借如此多的錢。較早錄取的學生每年有望獲得來自于學校的資助,而像布蘭登這樣處于招生流程末尾(學校大多數獎學金已被發放)的學生往往不得不自付絕大部分或所有的學費,哪怕學生來自于貧困家庭亦是如此。這些學生及其家長唯一的出路就是舉債。他們的還貸能力極差,但又是最需要貸款的人群。

              盡管《軍人安置法案》的助學金和佩爾助學金解決了布蘭登的學費問題,但布蘭登的很大一部分債務都被用于生活支出?;羧A德大學的校內宿舍已經人滿為患,因此布蘭登并沒有預定到。他在馬里蘭州的喬治王子郡租了一間公寓,月租金980美元,距離學校半個小時車程。他還得花錢買一輛汽車,并支付油錢、停車費以及維修費。

              如果家中的其他人也舉債的話,那么布蘭登唯一能負擔的就只有學費了。他的曾祖母是沙利美私人貸款的聯合署名人。在2011年夏季畢業時,包括利息在內,布蘭登和她的曾祖母欠下了14.8萬美元的學生貸款。在畢業典禮上,感到無比自豪的曾祖母流下了淚水。

              當時,與布蘭登一道畢業的大學生人數創下了美國歷史新高,而這群畢業生亦背負了最大規模的學生債務。在那個時候,包括大學和研究生學校在內的高校錄取人數,剛剛達到了2100萬的峰值。有三分之二的大四學生都背負著債務,人均2.7萬美元。像布蘭登這樣背負更多債務的學生雖然人數不多,但增速很快,而且人均債務都超過了5萬美元。

              這一局面是很多因素共同作用的結果,有一些是經濟方面的,有一些與政策相關。其中一個是政府在20世紀90年代做出的調整——開始對很多學生的貸款征收利息,而當時很多借款人都在學校讀書,此舉使得其畢業時的負債總額大幅增長了20%。得益于數十年來的寬松法規,各個大學大肆調高了其學費。經濟蕭條還摧毀了家庭財富。在當時那個上大學有著重要意義的時代,美國人的學費支付能力似乎降到了最低水平。正因為如此,他們選擇了貸款。

              布蘭登及其同學在畢業時趕上了最糟糕的就業環境。即便經濟衰退在兩年前便已經結束,但失業率依然居高不下。失業率在2011年的大部分時期均超過了9%,是大蕭條之后的最高水平。很多足夠幸運找到工作的年輕大學畢業生都處于大材小用的狀態,從事那些傳統上并不需要大學學歷的工作崗位,而且拿著普通的薪資。

              數百萬美國青年在借貸時存在這樣一個信念,大學學歷是通往有保障中產階級工作的門票。大批大批的青年出現了拖欠還款的情況。學生債務多年來一直被當作是一種投資,但卻讓大量的新畢業生心生怨恨。2011年9月,抗議者齊聚紐約的祖科蒂公園(Zuccotti Park),發起了占領華爾街(Occupy Wall Street)運動??棺h者斥責華爾街和大學的貪婪,并要求免去其學生債務。

              2011年10月,一位名為史黛絲·巴頓的女士對《今日美國》(USA Today)說:“我認為這是一個有關經濟公平性的運動。在我看來,人們抗議的問題是顯而易見的,即貪婪、魯莽、非法行為、房產止贖和不斷增長的學生債務。我們找不到工作,但我們的學生債務在不斷上升?!?/p>

              學生債務在黑人中的增速最快,而對于在歷史悠久的黑人大學讀書的學生來說,這一增速更為迅猛。在美國社會的各個階層中,黑人家庭的財富最少。相對于旗艦大學,黑人學生更有可能被那些獲捐贈有限的大學錄取。與眾多同僚相比,這些學校更加依靠學費來支付學校開支。在歷史悠久的私立黑人大學中,約四分之三的學生都不得不通過貸款來支付學費。

              在大學期間,布蘭登曾經在瑟古德·馬歇爾大學基金(Thurgood Marshall College Fund)做過兼職工作,這是一家為歷史悠久的黑人學院和大學做游說工作的非營利性機構。2011年獲得學位證書后,他告訴了自己的導師兼基金負責人喬尼·泰勒自己欠了多少錢。泰勒嘆了口氣。他對布蘭登說,他會給布蘭登提供一份工作,幫他還債。布蘭登一開始的年薪是5.5萬美元,負責接電話、組織活動并協助泰勒,其工作地點并不在機構內部,倒是距離霍華德校園只有幾個街區。

              在從事新工作數月之后,布蘭登開始接到來自于霍華德和其他黑人大學憤怒學生的電話。他們稱令其感到意外的是,自己的父母被聯邦父母PLUS貸款拒之門外。美國國會在1980年創建了這個計劃,旨在將貸款成本轉移給父母而不是學生,因為父母貸款的默認利率更高。其想法在于,相對于孩子,擁有穩定工作的父母更適合償還債務。到本世紀00年代,貸款項目已經成為了很多黑人大學學生的生命線。

              美國教育部(Education Department)2011年發現,根據擔保學生貸款計劃(Guaranteed Student Loan program),銀行會錯誤地為不符合聯邦貸款資質的父母發放貸款。如今,由于銀行已經退出該計劃,而且美國教育部已經強制推行這一標準,此舉與其他規定一道,禁止向五年內宣稱破產的父母提供貸款。數萬名學生,很多都位于歷史悠久的黑人大學,如今都因為這一調整而被貸款項目拒之門外。

              除了自身的聯邦學生貸款之外,學生還需要父母的PLUS貸款來支付學費。其學校的助學金官員對他們說,如果他們找不到其他的學費支付方式,那么他們就只能退學。布蘭登也不知道該如何回應。

              即便父母PLUS貸款出臺了新標準,但政府依然會為具有高違約風險的父母提供貸款。很多父母鮮有或沒有儲蓄;一些處于失業狀態;還有一些很快將退休,因此屆時將失去工作。像這樣的情況非常普遍,這只是其中的一部分。高風險借貸不僅僅存在于歷史悠久的黑人大學,也不單單只是面向父母。(財富中文網)

              節選自《債務陷阱:學生貸款如何成了國家災難》(The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe),作者喬什·米切爾。版權? 2021由喬什·米切爾所有。再版得到了西蒙與舒斯特公司(Simon & Schuster, Inc.)的許可。

              譯者:馮豐

              審校:夏林

              學生債務危機源于過去60年的一系列事件和決策。然而,在2007年至2009年的經濟蕭條期以及隨后的恢復期,這個危機突然被激化。2012年,美國學生貸款債務總額突破1萬億美元大關,超過了信用卡債務和車貸。

              這一時期恰逢美國第一位黑人總統貝拉克·奧巴馬的任期。奧巴馬對高等教育在改善家庭環境以及美國經濟方面所發揮的重要作用深信不疑,即便在談論學生債務給家庭造成的負擔時亦表達了同樣的觀點。

              美國當時正處于轉型期,這里不僅僅涉及政治和經濟領域,同時還包括文化,尤其是高等教育領域。這一時期,為了追逐向上層進軍的美國夢,美國人的債務水平達到了前所未有的高度。不過在奧巴馬第二任期結束時,美國人已經不再像之前那樣,將高等教育看作是通往財務自由的必經之路。

              盡管學生債務在所有人群中都出現了激增,但本世紀增速最快的莫過于黑人家庭,至少在那些通過借貸來接受高等教育的家庭存在這種情況。不妨看看我的新書《債務陷阱:學生貸款如何成了國家災難》(The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe)(西蒙與舒斯特公司出版),其中有一個章節便通過霍華德大學(Howard University)一位年輕黑人大學生的經歷,刻畫了這一現實,而霍華德大學是美國歷史上最知名的黑人大學。

              *****

              2006年8月,一個陽光明媚的周五下午,布蘭登敬畏地看著霍華德大學的磚砌門柱,這所坐落于華盛頓特區的黑人大學有著悠久的歷史。自孩提以來,他便將這里視為圣地。如今,他即將跨入校園,成為該校的一名學生。

              這天,布蘭登專為支付大學一年級的學費而來。就在他滿懷憧憬跨入校園大門時,心頭閃過一絲疑慮。他不禁自問道,“我真的屬于這里嗎?”自己所站立的地方正是瑟古德·馬歇爾、佐拉·尼爾·赫斯頓、托妮·莫里森和肖恩·康布斯曾經走過的地方。想到這里,他再次拾回了信心。

              他對自己說,我走到了這里,我成功了。

              布蘭登來自于一個普通家庭。他與三個兄妹在弗吉尼亞州匹茲堡和佐治亞州奧古斯塔長大,一直由在軍隊服役的單身母親及其祖母撫養。他的哥哥姐姐向他灌輸了上帝、家庭和教育的重要性。雖然家境貧寒,但他當時對此并沒有什么感覺。

              由于不善社交和語言障礙,他自小便十分有禮貌,而且十分謙遜,似乎連自我價值感都沒有。他每周去三次教堂,而且在高中拿到了A等和B等成績。畢業時,他渴望成為一名軍人,因此加入了海軍。他當時駐扎在俄克拉荷馬市,負責通訊工作,就是在兩扇裝有密碼鎖的大門后看守密閉控制室,每12小時倒一次班。

              在海軍的服役經歷讓他感到愈發慮和孤獨。布蘭登擔心自己在緊急情況下會因為語言障礙而無法正常使用麥克風進行交流,他也因此而出現了驚恐發作癥。兩年后,他光榮退伍,并決定嘗試去考大學。他的曾祖母是一名退休的醫院清潔工,她在高中時輟學了,隨后拿到了美國高中同等學歷證書(GED)。曾祖母從小便敦促布蘭登一定要去上大學。布蘭登說:“很多人認為,如果你上大學,那么你就會獲得各種機會,我的曾祖母便是其中之一?!?

              對于美國的眾多黑人家庭來說,就神秘性而言,沒有學校能夠與霍華德大學相比。該校由傳教士于1867年成立,是美國內戰后設立的數百所致力于培養黑人的學校之一,很多美國黑人都因為其膚色而被其他大學拒之門外。在成立的第一個五年期間,霍華德大學教授了數萬名獲得自由的奴隸。2006年,在美國排名約前100位有著悠久歷史的現存黑人大學中,霍華德大學名列榜首。

              盡管布蘭登在高中拿到了不俗的成績,但他深知他被霍華德大學選中的幾率依然十分渺茫。在每年申請的數萬名學生中,僅有約30%被學校錄取。當他撥打招生辦電話后,一位女士告訴他已經被學校錄取,他不敢相信自己的耳朵,還請這位女士又重復了一遍。

              布蘭登在學生債務增長伊始進入了大學。在他第一學期結束之際,美國學生債務總額已經達到了5000億美元,是美國三年前水平的兩倍。其規模迅速攀升至美國信用卡貸款和車貸同等水平。媒體和決策者也意識到了這個問題。作家安雅·卡門尼茨通過其書作《一代人的債務》(Generation Debt)挑明了這個問題。該書在布蘭登就讀大一時出版。

              學生債務出現飆升的部分原因在于大量美國人都走入了大學校門。在布蘭登入學時,大學畢業生工資溢價已經升至歷史最高水平,因為雇主逐漸要求求職者必須持有學士學位,而數年前這些崗位并沒有這一要求。2006年,美國本科生數量達到了1500萬,布蘭登只是其中之一。

              像布蘭登這樣的學生是大學擴招的推手。他們的家庭條件極差,屬于非洲裔或西班牙裔人,而且是家里第一個上大學的人。他們大多數都會就讀招生門檻低或不設門檻的學校,例如社區大學、盈利性學校以及多所歷史悠久的黑人大學,這些學校所面向的學生往往缺乏就讀好大學所需的成績或分數,但這些學校會為學生提供大量攀爬美國經濟階梯的機會。

              其中的大多數學生都依靠舉債上大學。大學學費在20世紀90年代的增速是通脹的三倍,而且始終高于家庭收入的增速。這對布蘭登這樣鮮有或毫無存款的赤貧家庭帶來的沖擊最大。那些可以就讀最知名大學(比如常青藤學校)的貧困生通常能夠免費求學,因為這些學校有著豐厚的家底,例如大型基金和校友捐贈,可以免除這些學生的學費。然而,大多數大學非但沒有這些資源,還嚴重依賴于學費來支付各類開支,其中就包括來自于貧困生的學費。

              與喬治華盛頓大學(George Washington University)和喬治城大學(Georgetown University)等華盛頓的其他學校相比,霍華德大學的學費算是便宜的了,但對布蘭登來說,2.8萬美元一年(含生活成本)的費用依然是一筆不小的數字。布蘭登拿到了佩爾助學金(Pell Grants),而且能夠享受《軍人安置法案》(G.I. Bill)的部分福利。然而,這些計劃提供的資金連支付就讀眾多州立大學所需的學費都不夠,就更不用說霍華德大學這種私立學校了。為了填補學費缺口,布蘭登同時借了近4萬美元的聯邦貸款以及6萬美元的沙利美(Sallie Mae)私人貸款。在畢業時,受利率推動,其債務總額增長了數萬美元。

              在大二時,也就是2007年9月底,一位教授給布蘭登及其同學布置了一項任務,出席在校園內舉辦的演講。當演講者走上講臺時,人們都從椅子上站了起來。貝拉克·奧巴馬笑了笑,信心十足地站在講臺上,發表了一篇光鮮亮麗的演講,布蘭登感受到了人群中不絕于耳的崇拜聲。

              布蘭登對這位來自于伊利諾伊州、將要參加總統競選的參議員早有耳聞。與布蘭登一樣,奧巴馬也是一個黑人,由單身母親養大,而且通過一次又一次的借貸讀完了大學和法學院。奧巴馬在他的競選活動期間來到了霍華德大學,希望借此活動重振因房產市場的崩塌而陷入了低迷的美國經濟。奧巴馬談到了刑法的改革,并提到要讓社會變得更加公平。最重要的是,他希望為社會上條件最差的人群創造機會,尤其是全球范圍內像布蘭登這樣的學生。

              2009年1月20日寒冷的日間,也就是那場霍華德大學的演講過去一年多后,奧巴馬在美國國會大廈西側的露天平臺上正式宣誓就任美國第44任總統。當時美國的經濟一塌糊涂。房產泡沫的破滅(這個虛幻的時期,標志性現象就是房產價格的飆升)導致金融市場停滯不前,也讓整個經濟陷入了混亂。選民推選奧巴馬帶領美國走出這場大蕭條之后最嚴重的危機。

              房產危機源于寬松的信貸和法規以及人們對美國夢的向往。抵押貸款出借方認為房產價值只會一路上揚,他們多年來向借款人發放的貸款數額越來越多,而后者的信貸狀況和收入卻顯示他們基本無力償還。在2007和2008年,五分之一的貸款都流向了次貸領域。聯邦監管方則對此視而不見。房利美(Fannie Mae)和房地美(Freddie Mac)這兩家政府支持的住房抵押貸款公司購買了其中很多按揭貸款,繼而為銀行提供了廉價的現金。貸款機構使用復雜的金融工具遮蓋了貸款的風險,并把房屋貸款以證券的形式出售給投資者。這場繁榮的背后存在著這樣一個信念:房產對于窮人和中產階級來說是一種不錯的投資。

              房產價格確實上漲了,而且借款人短時間內還有能力支付其月供,但好景不長。2006年,一批房主開始拖欠月供,銀行意識到其賬面存在一大堆無法得到償還的債務。房屋價格上升的太高、太快。最終,美國國會出手救市,斥資數千億美元用于為金融機構贖身,并穩定經濟。

              泡沫的破滅給民眾帶來了毀滅性的打擊。數千萬人無家可歸,其中大多數都是因為抵押品贖回權的喪失。近900萬人因為經濟蕭條而失去了工作。所有城市和城鎮都受到了嚴重沖擊。大銀行、汽車公司以及小企業大量破產。股市一落千丈。

              受沖擊最嚴重的家庭莫過于黑人、西班牙裔家庭,尤其是父母沒有念過大學的家庭。那些本應受到購房恩惠的民眾卻成為了受害者。當選領導人以及私營領域大肆鼓勵美國民眾購買房產的舉措不僅沒有降低不公平性,反而讓其愈演愈烈。

              奧巴馬將這場危機看作是經濟災難與道德災難的結合體。作為20世紀90年代末和21世紀初的伊利諾伊州參議員,他很早便開始批評這種巧取豪奪式的放貸行為,這種行為通常是指銀行向不知情的借款人發放高風險貸款,而有鑒于這些借款人的收入或月供規模,他們償還貸款的可能性并不高。參議員伊麗莎白·沃倫(馬薩諸塞州民主黨)曾經在2003年的一場政治籌資活動上見過奧巴馬,當時他正在競選美國參議員席位,而沃倫則是哈佛大學(Harvard University)消費融資領域的教授。在與沃倫交談時,奧巴馬使用了巧取豪奪式借貸一詞。沃倫對《美國新聞與世界報道》(U.S. News & World Report)說:“他一直說個不停,我連插話的機會都沒有?!?/p>

              2009年2月,也就是奧巴馬就任美國總統一個月之后,他在國會聯席會議上發表首次講話。期間,他介紹了讓美國擺脫嚴重下滑并回歸繁榮的計劃。他說,美國將通過教育走出危機。他指出:“在這個全球化的經濟中,人們可出售的最有價值的技能便是自身的知識,良好的教育不再只是通往機會的大門,而是前提?!?/p>

              為了讓美國擁有全球受教育程度最高的勞動力,他呼吁每一位美國民眾至少都要在大學學習一年時間,不管是四年的人文科學學校還是社區大學,都是向這一宏偉目標邁進。20世紀90年代初,美國大學畢業生占其勞動力的比例在全球名列前茅,然而在新世紀,其他國家在這一方面已經超過了美國。就像林登·約翰遜擔心俄羅斯在教育和全球領導地位方面會超越美國一樣,奧巴馬擔心像韓國這樣的國家在新世紀會出現同樣的情況。他信誓旦旦地說:“到2020年,美國大學畢業生占勞動力的比例將再次躍居首位?!?/p>

              奧巴馬稱其目標有助于讓美國民眾時刻心懷出人頭地的美好愿望,與比爾·克林頓1995年提升私有房主數量的目標相呼應。奧巴馬曾經在2008年的美國總統大選中通過傳遞充滿希望和變革的信息,激勵了數千萬的追隨者。在美國首位黑人總統的領導下,美國逐漸放棄了美國夢的一個基石——自有住房,并加倍押注另一個基石——高等教育,而這個基石依然得靠債務。

              在奧巴馬發表演講數周之后,奧巴馬的首要經濟顧問拉里·薩默斯在一個多云的下午來到了波士頓的芬威球場(Fenway Park),坐到了看臺席上。那時正值4月底,紅襪隊(Red Sox)正在與紐約洋基隊(New York Yankees)打比賽。曾經在克林頓時期做過美國財政部部長的薩默斯負責執掌此屆政府的相關舉措,以幫助美國走出經濟蕭條。

              他將目光投向了坐在他旁邊的哈佛大學經濟學家拉里·卡茨,并詢問他是否有辦法讓更多的美國民眾進入大學??ù南氲搅?300萬失業工人,其中很多人都來自于建造、制造和挖礦這類藍領行業??ù膶λ_默斯說:“先得看看錢從哪來?!?/p>

              失業保險是資金來源的一個選擇。大多數失業員工會從政府失業辦公室領取失業金??ù恼f,得想個辦法讓他們進入大學。聽到這一理念,薩默斯感到非常振奮。因雨延賽期間,他給奧巴馬的幕僚長拉姆·伊曼紐爾打了個電話。數天后,為了讓美國民眾走入大學校園,美國政府推出了有史以來最有力的舉措。

              奧巴馬政府敦促各州失業辦公室官員給每位領取失業金的人員致信,告訴他們如果進入當地大學就讀的話便能夠拿到資助,例如佩爾助學金(Pell Grants)。其中一封信寫道:“盡管經濟有所恢復,但我們可以利用眼下這個好時機來改善自身技能,并為未來更強勁的經濟復蘇做好準備。有研究表明,受過更多教育和培訓的員工能夠獲得更高的工資,而且工作也更有保障?!?/p>

              奧巴馬的顧問認為,讓民眾走進大學不僅有助于員工自身,還有助于經濟,從短期和長期來看都是如此。美國嚴重依賴于消費支出來助推經濟活動的開展,也就是購買各種物品,從汽車、百貨一直到健康檢查和教育。奧巴馬的經濟團隊認為,大學生在學費方面的開支也是推動經濟再次增長的方式之一。

              奧巴馬的高等教育領域白宮首席顧問詹姆斯·科瓦爾說:“首要任務是擺脫經濟危機。如果我們為低收入學生發放獎學金,他們就會消費,繼而惠及整個經濟。我們正在尋找可以迅速花錢而不是存錢的項目,以及能夠讓人們迅速拿到這些錢的項目?!?/p>

              這一大規模的舉措需要大量的資金支持。股市的崩盤以及經濟衰退讓美國民眾數萬億美元的財富蒸發殆盡,大多數家庭基本都沒有可以用于支付學費的存款。盡管奧巴馬希望調高針對貧困家庭的獎學金,但他的計劃不可避免地將導致學生債務的激增。

              2009年,由奧巴馬支持、美國國會通過的大范圍經濟刺激法案將中等收入學生在一年之內可獲取的佩爾助學金額度,從4700美元增至約5600美元。然而,這筆資金連支付公共社區大學的部分學費都不夠,而社區大學是最便宜的高等教育機構。平均來說,在2010年,如果就讀公立的兩年學制大學,即便計算上到手的資助,一名學生仍然需要支付1.2萬美元的學費和生活費,這個數字占到了普通家庭收入的約五分之一。

              在就讀法學院時,奧巴馬自己也依賴于學生貸款,他曾經多次在競選活動中提及這件事情。他與米歇爾·奧巴馬在就讀哈佛法學院(Harvard Law School)時每人都借貸了4萬美元。二人在數年前通過一本書作交易才還完了這筆貸款。

              與其前任的諸位總統一樣,奧巴馬發現自己受到了聯邦赤字的拖累。在小布什政府時期,政府開支因為美國發動的兩場戰爭而出現了飆升。用納稅人的錢救贖華爾街和汽車公司的舉動引發了民粹主義騷亂,又稱“茶黨運動”(Tea Party movement),其宗旨就是反對龐大的政府開支。奧巴馬本人也對不斷上升的權利保障計劃開支感到擔憂。

              而且他還有其他重要事情需要應對。盡管民主黨控制著參議院和眾議院,但奧巴馬將其早期的政治資本用在了其他動議上,即經濟復蘇法案和大范圍的醫療法案,因此并未大幅調高獎學金數額,以緩解美國民眾對學生債的依賴。

              奧巴馬沿用了兩黨慣用的方式,將學生債作為為其他動議融資的工具。2010年,他對自己標志性的醫療法案《平價醫療法案》(Affordable Care Act)追加了一項條款,以取消《學生貸款擔?!罚℅uaranteed Student Loan)計劃,該計劃自1965年以來便為私營出借人提供的學生擔保提供保險服務。終止該計劃將在未來10年內為納稅人節約600億美元的資金,因為政府無需再向銀行支付其借貸成本的差價。2010年以后的所有聯邦貸款都將依據比爾·克林頓時期通過的《直接貸款》(Direct Loan)計劃,由美國財政部發放。

              奧巴馬在2010年3月簽署這一法案時說:“我們得向銀行支付數十億美元的費用,我們難以承擔這種浪費。我們得把這筆資金投給學生?!比欢?,并非所有節省下來的費用都流向了學生,一些資金流向了奧巴馬的全國性醫療法案。共和黨指責奧巴馬是在將學生貸款計劃“國有化”。一些人認為,此舉通過取消“核貸”環節(銀行檢查借款人信貸歷史、收入和其他細節的流程,以確定他們是否有可能違約。),鼓勵向學生無止盡的發放貸款。這是一個具有誤導性的主張,因為它并沒有明確貸款是由財政部還是銀行發放。資質標準都是相同的,而且門檻極低。奧巴馬的這一舉措只不過是取消了中間環節。然而,該舉措存在一個根本性的缺陷:在它所構建的這個體系中,大學每年無需任何條件便可獲取數百億美元的納稅人稅金。這個體系讓大學可以在20世紀八九十年代和本世紀00年代肆意地提升學費。通過鼓勵所有美國民眾去大學念書(如果需要的話可以使用貸款),奧巴馬進一步打開了赤字的龍頭。

              放水舉措即帶來了機遇也帶來了麻煩。此舉讓數千萬學生走進了大學校門。例如布蘭登就走進了霍華德大學的校門,其畢業生(其中很多都來自于貧困家庭)有望獲得高薪工作。然而對布蘭登以及數千萬其他學生來說,它還意味著異常沉重的債務負擔。

              布蘭德在霍華德大學一直處于焦慮之中。最令他感到擔憂的便是其學生貸款債務。他每年會借數萬美元,其中既有聯邦貸款,也有沙利美的私人貸款,然后焦慮地看著債務因為應計利息而不斷增加。

              當布蘭登入學時,他并未意識到自己不得不借如此多的錢。較早錄取的學生每年有望獲得來自于學校的資助,而像布蘭登這樣處于招生流程末尾(學校大多數獎學金已被發放)的學生往往不得不自付絕大部分或所有的學費,哪怕學生來自于貧困家庭亦是如此。這些學生及其家長唯一的出路就是舉債。他們的還貸能力極差,但又是最需要貸款的人群。

              盡管《軍人安置法案》的助學金和佩爾助學金解決了布蘭登的學費問題,但布蘭登的很大一部分債務都被用于生活支出?;羧A德大學的校內宿舍已經人滿為患,因此布蘭登并沒有預定到。他在馬里蘭州的喬治王子郡租了一間公寓,月租金980美元,距離學校半個小時車程。他還得花錢買一輛汽車,并支付油錢、停車費以及維修費。

              如果家中的其他人也舉債的話,那么布蘭登唯一能負擔的就只有學費了。他的曾祖母是沙利美私人貸款的聯合署名人。在2011年夏季畢業時,包括利息在內,布蘭登和她的曾祖母欠下了14.8萬美元的學生貸款。在畢業典禮上,感到無比自豪的曾祖母流下了淚水。

              當時,與布蘭登一道畢業的大學生人數創下了美國歷史新高,而這群畢業生亦背負了最大規模的學生債務。在那個時候,包括大學和研究生學校在內的高校錄取人數,剛剛達到了2100萬的峰值。有三分之二的大四學生都背負著債務,人均2.7萬美元。像布蘭登這樣背負更多債務的學生雖然人數不多,但增速很快,而且人均債務都超過了5萬美元。

              這一局面是很多因素共同作用的結果,有一些是經濟方面的,有一些與政策相關。其中一個是政府在20世紀90年代做出的調整——開始對很多學生的貸款征收利息,而當時很多借款人都在學校讀書,此舉使得其畢業時的負債總額大幅增長了20%。得益于數十年來的寬松法規,各個大學大肆調高了其學費。經濟蕭條還摧毀了家庭財富。在當時那個上大學有著重要意義的時代,美國人的學費支付能力似乎降到了最低水平。正因為如此,他們選擇了貸款。

              布蘭登及其同學在畢業時趕上了最糟糕的就業環境。即便經濟衰退在兩年前便已經結束,但失業率依然居高不下。失業率在2011年的大部分時期均超過了9%,是大蕭條之后的最高水平。很多足夠幸運找到工作的年輕大學畢業生都處于大材小用的狀態,從事那些傳統上并不需要大學學歷的工作崗位,而且拿著普通的薪資。

              數百萬美國青年在借貸時存在這樣一個信念,大學學歷是通往有保障中產階級工作的門票。大批大批的青年出現了拖欠還款的情況。學生債務多年來一直被當作是一種投資,但卻讓大量的新畢業生心生怨恨。2011年9月,抗議者齊聚紐約的祖科蒂公園(Zuccotti Park),發起了占領華爾街(Occupy Wall Street)運動??棺h者斥責華爾街和大學的貪婪,并要求免去其學生債務。

              2011年10月,一位名為史黛絲·巴頓的女士對《今日美國》(USA Today)說:“我認為這是一個有關經濟公平性的運動。在我看來,人們抗議的問題是顯而易見的,即貪婪、魯莽、非法行為、房產止贖和不斷增長的學生債務。我們找不到工作,但我們的學生債務在不斷上升?!?/p>

              學生債務在黑人中的增速最快,而對于在歷史悠久的黑人大學讀書的學生來說,這一增速更為迅猛。在美國社會的各個階層中,黑人家庭的財富最少。相對于旗艦大學,黑人學生更有可能被那些獲捐贈有限的大學錄取。與眾多同僚相比,這些學校更加依靠學費來支付學校開支。在歷史悠久的私立黑人大學中,約四分之三的學生都不得不通過貸款來支付學費。

              在大學期間,布蘭登曾經在瑟古德·馬歇爾大學基金(Thurgood Marshall College Fund)做過兼職工作,這是一家為歷史悠久的黑人學院和大學做游說工作的非營利性機構。2011年獲得學位證書后,他告訴了自己的導師兼基金負責人喬尼·泰勒自己欠了多少錢。泰勒嘆了口氣。他對布蘭登說,他會給布蘭登提供一份工作,幫他還債。布蘭登一開始的年薪是5.5萬美元,負責接電話、組織活動并協助泰勒,其工作地點并不在機構內部,倒是距離霍華德校園只有幾個街區。

              在從事新工作數月之后,布蘭登開始接到來自于霍華德和其他黑人大學憤怒學生的電話。他們稱令其感到意外的是,自己的父母被聯邦父母PLUS貸款拒之門外。美國國會在1980年創建了這個計劃,旨在將貸款成本轉移給父母而不是學生,因為父母貸款的默認利率更高。其想法在于,相對于孩子,擁有穩定工作的父母更適合償還債務。到本世紀00年代,貸款項目已經成為了很多黑人大學學生的生命線。

              美國教育部(Education Department)2011年發現,根據擔保學生貸款計劃(Guaranteed Student Loan program),銀行會錯誤地為不符合聯邦貸款資質的父母發放貸款。如今,由于銀行已經退出該計劃,而且美國教育部已經強制推行這一標準,此舉與其他規定一道,禁止向五年內宣稱破產的父母提供貸款。數萬名學生,很多都位于歷史悠久的黑人大學,如今都因為這一調整而被貸款項目拒之門外。

              除了自身的聯邦學生貸款之外,學生還需要父母的PLUS貸款來支付學費。其學校的助學金官員對他們說,如果他們找不到其他的學費支付方式,那么他們就只能退學。布蘭登也不知道該如何回應。

              即便父母PLUS貸款出臺了新標準,但政府依然會為具有高違約風險的父母提供貸款。很多父母鮮有或沒有儲蓄;一些處于失業狀態;還有一些很快將退休,因此屆時將失去工作。像這樣的情況非常普遍,這只是其中的一部分。高風險借貸不僅僅存在于歷史悠久的黑人大學,也不單單只是面向父母。(財富中文網)

              節選自《債務陷阱:學生貸款如何成了國家災難》(The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe),作者喬什·米切爾。版權? 2021由喬什·米切爾所有。再版得到了西蒙與舒斯特公司(Simon & Schuster, Inc.)的許可。

              譯者:馮豐

              審校:夏林

              Today’s $1.6 trillion student debt crisis was built on a series of events and policy decisions made over six decades. Yet the crisis exploded in a short time frame—during the 2007–09 recession and subsequent recovery. By 2012, Americans’ collective student debt tab had crossed $1 trillion, surpassing credit card debt and auto debt.

              This period coincided with the tenure of the nation’s first Black President, Barack Obama, who believed in the power of higher education to uplift families and the U.S. economy, even as he spoke of the burden that student debt placed on households.

              The nation was undergoing a shift, not just politically and economically, but culturally, particularly when it came to higher education. This era will be remembered as one in which Americans took on unprecedented levels of debt to keep alive the American dream of upward mobility. By the end of Obama’s second term, Americans’ view of higher education as a pathway to financial prosperity had dimmed.

              While student debt soared among all demographic groups, it grew the fastest this century among Black households, at least among households that borrowed for higher education. The excerpt to follow from my new book, The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe (Simon & Schuster), highlights this phenomenon through the story of a young Black college student who attended Howard University, among the nation’s most prestigious historically Black universities.

              *****

              On a sunny Friday afternoon in August 2006, Brandon stared in awe at the brick gateposts of Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C. Since he was a boy, he’d seen this place as a distant sanctum he would never reach. Now he was about to step onto the campus as a student.

              Brandon had come to Howard that day to pay a bill before starting his freshman year. As he stood relishing the moment before he passed through the gates, self-doubt shivered through him. Do I really belong here? he thought. He was standing on the same ground that Thurgood Marshall, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Sean “Diddy” Combs once walked. And then he shook off the shadow.

              I’m here, he told himself. I did it.

              Brandon came from a modest background. He and his three siblings were raised in Petersburg, Va., and Augusta, Ga., by a single mother in the Army and their great-grandmother. His elders taught him the importance of God, family, and education. He grew up poor, but at the time he didn’t know it.

              Socially awkward and with a speech impediment, he grew up to be polite and humble, seemingly without an ego. His great-grandmother taught him to appreciate what he had and to strive for stability in life. He went to church three days a week and got A’s and B’s in high school. When he graduated, he craved structure, so he joined the Navy. He was stationed in Oklahoma City and specialized in communications, working 12-hour shifts behind two combination-locked doors in a windowless control room.

              His time in the Navy exacerbated his anxiety and feelings of isolation. Brandon suffered panic attacks over his worry that his speech difficulties would prevent him from speaking through a microphone in an emergency. After two years, he left with an honorable discharge and decided to try college. His great-grandmother, a retired hospital housekeeper who had dropped out of high school and later got her GED, had urged him throughout his childhood to go to college. “She was one of those people who thought if you went to college, then the doors were opened for you,” Brandon says.

              For many Black families across the U.S., no school held as mystical a status as Howard. Founded by missionaries in 1867, the school was one of hundreds that opened across the U.S. after the Civil War to educate Black Americans, many of whom were denied entry to other colleges because of the color of their skin. In its first five years, Howard taught tens of thousands of freed slaves. By 2006, Howard was the most prestigious of the nation’s 100 or so historically Black colleges still in existence.

              Despite his strong high school grades, Brandon knew the odds of his being admitted to Howard were slim. Of the thousands who applied each year, only about three in 10 got in. When he called the admissions office and a woman told him he’d been accepted, he was in such disbelief that he asked her to repeat herself.

              Brandon entered college at the onset of a student debt boom. By the end of his first semester, student debt across the U.S. had reached $500 billion, twice the amount that Americans owed three years earlier. That sum was quickly approaching that which Americans owed on credit cards and auto loans. The media and policymakers were waking up to the problem. Author Anya Kamenetz helped put the issue on the map with her book Generation Debt, released during Brandon’s freshman year.

              Student debt was soaring in part because a greater share of Americans were going to college. The college-wage premium had reached an all-time high by the time Brandon enrolled, as employers increasingly demanded that job applicants hold a bachelor’s degree for jobs that several years earlier didn’t require one. Brandon was one of 15 million undergraduates across the U.S. in 2006.

              The rise in college enrollment was driven by students like Brandon. They were disproportionately poor, Black, Hispanic, and the first in their families to go to college. They mostly attended schools with low or no admissions standards—community colleges, for-profit schools, and a number of historically Black colleges—schools that opened their doors to students who lacked the grades or test scores to get into more selective universities. The schools provided students a huge opportunity to move up on America’s economic ladder.

              Most of those students relied on debt. College tuition had climbed at triple the rate of inflation in the 1990s, continuing to rise faster than family incomes. The increase fell hardest on the poorest families, such as Brandon’s, who had little to no savings. Poor students who could get into the most elite universities, such as Ivy League schools, often got free rides, because those schools had the resources—such as large endowments and alumni donations—to waive tuition for them. But most colleges lacked such resources and relied heavily on tuition dollars, including from poor students, to pay the bills.

              For Brandon, Howard was a steal compared with Washington’s other schools, like George Washington University and Georgetown University. But it still cost a fortune—$28,000 a year after living costs were factored in. Brandon qualified for Pell Grants and partial benefits under the G.I. Bill. But neither program provided enough money to cover tuition at many state schools, let alone a prestigious private school like Howard. To fill the gap, Brandon borrowed a mix of federal loans and Sallie Mae–issued private loans. His total student debt tab: nearly $40,000 in federal loans and $60,000 in private loans. Interest pushed it thousands of dollars higher by the time he graduated.

              During his sophomore year, in late September 2007, a professor gave Brandon and his classmates an assignment to attend a speech on campus. When the speaker stepped to the podium, the crowd rose to its feet. Quick to smile and at ease behind the podium, Barack Obama delivered a speech polished to a gleam, and Brandon could feel the waves of admiration washing over the crowd.

              Brandon had heard of this senator from Illinois who was running for President. Like Brandon, Obama was a Black man raised by a single mother and had taken out loan after loan to attend college and law school. Obama had come to Howard on his campaign tour with a vision for revitalizing America’s economy, which was in distress as the housing market crumbled. He talked about criminal justice reform, and about making society more equal. Above all, he wanted to create opportunity for society’s most disadvantaged, particularly the Brandons of the world.

              Just over a year after that speech, Obama stepped to a lectern outside the U.S. Capitol on a frigid day on Jan. 20, 2009, to be sworn in as the nation’s 44th President. America’s economy was in tatters. The housing bubble—and the illusory era of inflated real estate that defined it—had burst, bringing financial markets to a halt and sending the economy into a tailspin. Voters had elected Obama to steer the country out of the worst crisis since the Great Depression.

              The housing crisis was created by loose credit, lax regulation, and a reach for the American dream. Mortgage lenders, believing the value of homes would only go up, had spent years lending bigger and bigger sums to borrowers whose credit histories or incomes indicated they had little hope of repaying. One in five loans in 2007 and 2008 was to borrowers with subprime credit. Federal regulators looked the other way. Government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bought up many of those mortgages, fueling banks with cheap cash. Lenders sold home loans to investors as securities, using intricate financial instruments that obscured the loans’ risk. Undergirding this boom was the belief that homeownership was a sound investment for the poor and middle class.

              Home prices did rise, and borrowers for a while could afford their monthly payments—until they couldn’t. In 2006, a wave of homeowners fell behind on payments, and banks realized they had a pile of debt on their books that wouldn’t be repaid. Home prices had risen too high, too fast. Ultimately Congress came to the rescue, spending hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out financial institutions and steady the economy.

              When the bubble burst, the human consequences were devastating. Ten million people lost their homes, most to foreclosure. Nearly 9 million lost their jobs over the recession. Entire cities and towns were decimated. Big banks, car companies, and small businesses failed. The stock market crashed.

              The hardest-hit families tended to be Black, Hispanic, and headed by someone without a college degree. The very people who were meant to be helped by homeownership were harmed. Instead of reducing inequality, the aggressive push by elected leaders and the private sector to get Americans into homes increased it.

              Obama viewed the crisis not just as an economic disaster but as a moral one. As a state senator in Illinois in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he’d been an early critic of predatory lending, which broadly refers to banks extending risky loans to unwitting borrowers who are unlikely to repay them, given their incomes or the size of the monthly payments. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recalled meeting Obama at a political fundraiser in 2003 when he was running for the U.S. Senate and she was a Harvard professor specializing in consumer finance. He greeted her with the words predatory lending. “On and on and on, and I never got a word in,” Warren told U.S. News & World Report.

              A month after his inauguration, in February 2009, Obama delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress, in which he laid out his plan to pull the nation out of the severe downturn and return it to prosperity. The country would educate its way out of the recession, he said. “In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity—it is a prerequisite,” he noted.

              He asked every American to spend at least one year in college—whether it be a four-year liberal arts school or a community college—to meet a bold goal: for the U.S. to have the world’s most educated workforce. The country had the world’s most college graduates as a share of its workforce in the early 1990s, but in the new century other countries had surpassed the U.S. Just as Lyndon Johnson had worried about Russia overtaking the U.S. in education and global leadership, Obama worried about countries like South Korea doing the same in the new millennium. “By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” he vowed.

              Obama framed his goal as a way to help keep alive the U.S. ideal of upward mobility, echoing the goal of Clinton’s 1995 drive to increase homeownership. Under the nation’s first Black President, one who’d inspired millions of followers with a message of hope and change during the 2008 campaign, the country was turning away from one cornerstone of the American dream, homeownership, while doubling down on another, higher education, that also relied on debt.

              A few weeks after Obama’s speech, Obama’s top economic adviser, Larry Summers, settled into his seat at Boston’s Fenway Park under a gray afternoon sky. It was late April, and the Red Sox were playing the New York Yankees. Summers, a former Treasury secretary under President Clinton, was spearheading the administration’s efforts to dig out of the recession.

              He turned to his friend sitting next to him, Harvard economist Larry Katz, and asked if he had any ideas on how to get more Americans into college. Katz thought of the 13 million unemployed workers, many from blue-collar industries like construction, manufacturing, and mining. “You need to go where the money is,” Katz told Summers.

              “The money” was unemployment insurance. Most of those jobless workers drew checks from state unemployment offices. Find a way to nudge them into college, Katz said. Summers was so excited by the idea he called Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, during a rain delay. Days later, the government embarked on one of the biggest pushes ever to get Americans to go to college.

              The administration urged state unemployment officials to send a letter to every person receiving jobless benefits, telling them they could get financial aid, such as Pell Grants, if they enrolled in their local college. “While the economy recovers, this is a great time to improve skills and lay the foundation for a stronger economy in the future,” one of the state letters read. “Studies have shown that workers with more education and training have more secure jobs and higher wages.”

              Obama’s advisers believed getting people into college would help not only workers but the economy, in the short and long run. The U.S. economy relies heavily on consumer spending—Americans going out to buy stuff, from cars and groceries to medical checkups and education—to fuel economic activity, and Obama’s economic team envisioned college students’ spending on tuition as one way to get the economy growing again.

              “The top priority was fixing the economic crisis,” says James Kvaal, Obama’s top adviser on higher education at the White House. “If we gave low-income students scholarship dollars, they would spend, and that would ripple through the economy. We were looking for projects where the dollars would be spent quickly, not saved, and the dollars could get in the hands of people quickly.”

              This massive push would require huge sums of money. The stock market crash and recession had wiped out trillions of dollars in Americans’ wealth, leaving most families with little savings to pay tuition. While Obama wanted to increase scholarship money for the poor, his plan inherently relied on a surge in student debt.

              The sweeping economic stimulus law that Obama championed and Congress passed in 2009 increased the maximum Pell Grant award that a modest-income student could receive over a year from $4,700 to about $5,600. But that sum wasn’t enough to cover a fraction of expenses even at public community colleges, the cheapest of higher education institutions. On average, attending a public two-year college—after grants were factored in—cost $12,000 a year in tuition and living expenses in 2010, or about a fifth of the typical household income.

              Obama himself had relied on student loans to get through law school, as he had mentioned frequently on the campaign trail. He and Michelle Obama each owed $40,000 from their time at Harvard Law School, debt they had paid off only a few years earlier with the advance from a book deal.

              Obama, like other Presidents before him, found himself hemmed in by the federal deficit. Spending had soared under George W. Bush as the nation fought two wars. The taxpayer-funded bailouts of Wall Street and auto companies had stirred a populist uprising known as the Tea Party movement, which opposed big government spending. Obama himself had raised concerns about rising entitlement program spending.

              And he had other priorities. While his Democratic Party controlled both chambers of Congress, Obama spent his early political capital on other initiatives—an economic recovery bill and a sweeping health care law—instead of pushing for a big increase in scholarship money to ease Americans’ reliance on student debt.

              Obama continued a bipartisan tradition of relying on student loans as a way to finance other initiatives. In 2010, he attached a provision to the Affordable Care Act, his signature health care law, to eliminate the Guaranteed Student Loan program, which since 1965 had insured student loans originated by private lenders. Ending the program would save taxpayers $60 billion over 10 years since the government would no longer have to pay banks a spread over their own borrowing costs. All federal loans from 2010 onward would be originated by the Treasury Department, using Bill Clinton’s Direct Loan program.

              “We can’t afford to waste billions of dollars on giveaways to banks,” Obama said as he signed the bill in March 2010. “We need to invest that money in our students.” Not all the savings went to students, though; some financed Obama’s national health care law. Republicans accused Obama of “nationalizing” the student loan program. Some suggested the move encouraged reckless lending to students by removing “underwriting”—the process of banks screening borrowers’ credit histories, incomes, and other details to determine whether they were likely to default. It was a misleading claim. It didn’t matter whether the loans were originated by the Treasury Department or banks. The eligibility criteria were identical, and minimal. Obama’s move merely cut out the middlemen. But his move had a fundamental flaw: It kept in place a structure that required nothing of colleges to gain access to tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money each year. That structure had enabled colleges to raise their prices with abandon in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. By encouraging all Americans to go to college, through debt if they needed to, he had opened the spigot up further.

              That spigot created both opportunity and hardship. It enabled tens of millions of students to attend college. In Brandon’s case, it opened the doors to Howard, whose graduates—many of whom had grown up poor—tended to land high-paying jobs. But for Brandon, as well as for millions of other students, it also meant an unconscionably high debt burden.

              Brandon continued to suffer from anxiety at Howard. His biggest source of worry was his student loan debt. He borrowed tens of thousands of dollars each year—a mix of federal loans and private loans from Sallie Mae—watching anxiously as the interest accrued.

              Brandon hadn’t realized when he matriculated that he would have to borrow so much. Students accepted early each year are more likely to get financial aid from schools. Students like Brandon who come in late in the admissions process—after most of the school’s scholarship money has been doled out—are often left to pay most or all of the sticker price, despite their families’ lack of wealth. The only option for those students and their parents is to take on debt. They are in the worst position to repay debt but the ones most reliant on it.

              While G.I. Bill funds and Pell Grants went toward Brandon’s tuition, much of Brandon’s debt went toward living expenses. Howard had overbooked its on-campus dorms, and Brandon didn’t get a room. Instead he rented an apartment for $980 a month in Prince George’s County, Md., a half-hour drive from the school. He needed a car, and money for gas, parking, and maintenance.

              Brandon could only pay for school if other family members took out debt as well. His great-grandmother cosigned his private loans from Sallie Mae. By the time he graduated in the summer of 2011, Brandon and his great-grandmother owed $148,000 in student debt, including interest. At the graduation ceremony, his great-grandmother was so proud she wept.

              Brandon was part of one of the biggest graduating classes nationwide in history—and also one of the most indebted. Higher education enrollment—college and graduate school—had just hit a peak of 21 million students. Two in three graduating seniors owed debt—$27,000, on average. A small but fast-growing share, like Brandon, owed large balances—$50,000 and up.

              Numerous factors collided to make this happen, some economic, some policy-related. One was a change the government made in the 1990s to begin charging interest on many student loans while borrowers were in school, driving up their balances by as much as 20% by graduation. Decades of lax regulation had enabled colleges to raise tuition to excessive levels. The recession also had wiped out household wealth. At a time when college was most important, it seemed, Americans were least able to pay for it. So they borrowed.

              Brandon and his peers were graduating at one of the worst possible times. Even though the recession had ended two years earlier, unemployment remained exceptionally high. For most of 2011, it was above 9%, among the highest levels since the Great Depression. Many young college graduates lucky enough to find work were “underemployed,” stuck in jobs that traditionally didn’t require a college degree and paid modest wages.

              Millions of young Americans had taken out debt with the belief that it was the ticket to a secure middle-class job. They were falling behind on their bills in droves. Student debt—which had for years been seen as an investment—stirred resentment among the hordes of new grads, fueling a populist movement. In September 2011, protesters crowded Zuccotti Park in New York, launching the Occupy Wall Street movement. Protesters criticized the greed of Wall Street and universities and demanded that their student debt be forgiven.

              “I think this is a movement about economic justice,” a woman named Stacey Patton told USA Today in October 2011. “I think it’s pretty obvious what people are protesting. They are protesting greed, recklessness, illegal behavior, home foreclosures, and rising student debt. We can’t get jobs, but we have mounting student debt.”

              Student debt was rising fastest among Blacks, and particularly students at historically Black colleges. Black families had the least amount of wealth of any racial group in U.S. society. Black students tended to enroll at universities that had smaller endowments than flagship universities and selective private colleges. The schools relied on tuition for a greater share of funding than many of their peers. Roughly three in four students at private historically Black colleges had to borrow for tuition.

              During college, Brandon had worked on the side at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a nonprofit group that lobbies for historically Black colleges and universities. After he got his diploma in 2011, he told his mentor and the head of the fund, Johnny Taylor, how much he owed. Taylor sighed. He told Brandon he was going to give him a job to help him pay it off. Brandon started out earning $55,000 a year answering phones, organizing events, and assisting Taylor, working out of the group’s office just a few blocks from the Howard campus.

              A few months into his new job, Brandon started getting phone calls from frantic students at Howard and other Black colleges. They said their parents had unexpectedly been rejected for federal parent PLUS loans. Congress had created the program in 1980 to shift costs onto parents rather than students, who had been defaulting at high rates. The idea was that parents—with their well-established jobs—would be better positioned to repay debt than their children. By the 2000s, the loan program had become a lifeline for many Black college students.

              The Education Department in 2011 had discovered that, under the old Guaranteed Student Loan program, banks mistakenly approved loans for parents who didn’t meet federal eligibility criteria. Now, with banks out of the program, the department enforced the criteria, which, among other rules, blocked loans from going to parents who had declared bankruptcy within the prior five years. Hundreds of thousands of students—many at historically Black colleges—were now being denied access to the program because of the change.

              The students needed the parent PLUS loans on top of their own federal student loans to cover the schools’ tuition. Financial aid officers at their schools told them that unless they found another way to pay, they would have to drop out. Brandon had no idea what to tell them.

              Even with the new criteria for parent PLUS loans, the government continued to give loans to parents at a high risk of default. Many had little or no savings; some were unemployed; others were close to retirement and thus would be out of work. This was part of a broader phenomenon. The risky lending wasn’t just at historically Black colleges, and it wasn’t just to parents.

              From The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe by Josh Mitchell. Copyright ? 2021 by Josh Mitchell. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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