Times Embraces Liberal Populism, Gets Activist on Student Loans

A front-page Business section article sure readers a lot like a liberal editorial: "But if education is a fundamental right, then it's hard to argue against public policies that try to make sure there are enough teachers to provide that education."

The front page of the Times' Business section took a strangely informal, populist turn Saturday with "Students Relying on Loans Wonder Whether Forgiveness Will Last." Under the subhead "Your Money," the piece on a federal program that forgives student loan debt for graduates who enter "public service" read like a column, but itlisted four reporters, like a news story. (It was written by two of them, Jonathan Glater and Ron Lieber.)

The Times put the liberal populism right out front:

If you want to become a public defender, Georgetown University can be a great place to get your legal education. So Heather Gatnarek expects to take on well over $100,000 of debt to get her law degree there and hopes to graduate in three years.

Here's the problem, though. She's relying on a new federal program that forgives part of the student loan debt for graduates who enter public service fields. And she was scared out of her mind when she read a New York Times article on Wednesday on problems in Kentucky, where significant cuts in one of its loan forgiveness programs have put thousands of indebted public school teachers and nurses in a painful financial squeeze.


The problem in Kentucky and another that emerged in Connecticut on Thursday raise a frightening question for millions of young Americans considering jobs like teaching or nursing: Are the state or federal programs that promise to forgive student loan debt for people in those or other public service professions backed by ironclad guarantees?

And if the forgiveness isn't guaranteed, how on earth can anyone expect 18- or 22-year-olds to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt?

How indeed? But where's the business news, guys?

Then theTimes reporters chided blog commenters for insensitivity to the plight of those who take out huge loans, before declaring education a "fundamental right."

In other words, the college graduates from years ago who chose banking over teaching or nursing have now made such a big mess of the economy that the teachers who educate the bankers' children have to worry about the status of the loans they took out to learn to teach. Pretty rich, no?

And so we're left with the sad tale of people like Adam and Katie Thomas. Both Louisville, Ky., teachers of special needs children, the Thomases had a combined $85,000 in student loans. Partway through the payback period on those loans, however, the forgiveness program in their state cut its annual subsidy from 20 percent of the couple's total loan balance to just 1 percent. That pushed them so close to the edge financially that they decided to sell their home and move in with Ms. Thomas's parents.

We know, we know. How irresponsible of mere teachers to take on that much debt in the first place, right? Many of the online commenters on the article in Wednesday's paper certainly felt this way.

But if education is a fundamental right, then it's hard to argue against public policies that try to make sure there are enough teachers to provide that education. And if loan forgiveness is what it takes to get teachers to head to rural schoolhouses or poor urban schools, then that would certainly seem to serve the national interest.

So loan forgiveness programs are not some sinister form of social engineering.

The Times doesn't consider the possibility that easy access to federal loans inflates the cost of education.

After deciding "to call up every single entity, state or federal, that we could find that offered loan forgiveness programs," the Times made a rare call for what could be called community journalism:

So this is where you come in. We've created an interactive table at nytimes.com/yourmoney with everything we've found so far. If your lender (or law firm or other employer) is not there and you'd like us to ask them to state whether they intend to stand behind their loan forgiveness program, write to yourmoney@nytimes.com.

Is this the Times' way of forging bonds with its (over-)educated readership? It's more highbrow than calling for cute pet photos, I guess.