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Student Loan Forgiveness Plan Receives More Scrutiny

FILE - Sen. Chuck Schumer D-N.Y., center, accompanied by, from left, Reps. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., Alma Adams, D-N.C., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, speaks about student debt relief, Feb. 4, 2021.
FILE - Sen. Chuck Schumer D-N.Y., center, accompanied by, from left, Reps. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., Alma Adams, D-N.C., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, speaks about student debt relief, Feb. 4, 2021.

Student loan forgiveness sounds like a good deal to many debtors, but since President Joe Biden suggested some form of federal student loan forgiveness, experts and debtors have been debating what that should look like.

“There isn't an American Dream anymore, especially if you went to college and had to borrow for it,” said Tracy Musick, who earned her master’s degree in library science from North Carolina Central University in 2011.

“I was actually in a better position when I was selling makeup, and didn't have a degree at all,” Musick said, adding that she would like to own a house and prosper on her own, but feels like she is weighed down by the debt.

Biden has suggested student loan debt forgiveness but has not yet published specific measures. Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have proposed up to $50,000 in debt forgiveness, but no legislation has been formalized.

“The President continues to support the canceling of student debt to bring relief to students and families,” Biden press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted on February 4. “Our team is reviewing whether there are any steps he can take through executive action, and he would welcome the opportunity to sign a bill sent to him by Congress.”

But economic experts say the words “loan forgiveness” may lead to inaccurate assumptions.

“Overall, we find balance forgiveness to be a highly regressive policy,” wrote Sylvain Catherine, professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Constantine Yannelis, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, in The Distributional Effects of Student Loan Forgiveness.

Catherine and Yannelis say debtors in upper economic levels would receive a greater benefit than economically disadvantaged debtors, who need the relief the most, Catherine said in a Wharton podcast.

“If a comprehensive loan-forgiveness program were passed, we calculate that the average person in the top 10% of earners would receive $5,944 in forgiveness, while the average individual in the bottom 10 percent of earners would receive $1,070,” they wrote in The Washington Post.

Catherine told VOA that enrolling more people in income-driven repayment plans is better for the bottom 30% than forgiving $10,000, and it also is less expensive to taxpayers.

Student debt is a fierce topic for many Americans because it is larger than all credit card debt. Outstanding student loan debt is held by nearly 43 million people, totaling more than $1.5 trillion, according to Federal Student Aid. Many debtors say they cannot move on with life milestones, such as getting married, having children or buying a home, under so much debt.

Experts at the Brookings Institution in Washington point out that one-third of all student loan debt is owed by only 6% of borrowers, typically students pursuing or who achieved their master’s and doctoral degrees.

Cody Hounanian is a student debtor and program director at Student Debt Crisis, a nonprofit dedicated to reforming student debt and loan policies for higher education. Founded in 2011, it advocates for private and federal student loan borrowers in the U.S. and works with other national groups.

Student Debt Crisis and more than 325 organizations re-released a letter February 5 calling on Biden to forgive student loan debt.

“As a group that represents 2 million supporters with very diverse perspectives and experiences … we are very supportive of [forgiving] $50,000 in student loan debt,” Hounanian said.

Another strategy, Hounanian said, might include debt restructuring, meaning borrowers with high interest rates would be able to refinance at lower rates, similar to what homeowners do with their mortgages as those bank interest rates drop.

“I look at this as another common-sense solution because anyone with any other type of loan — including a car loan, or a home loan — they're familiar with the idea of refinancing,” he said.

A report by the Association of Community College Trustees in December 2020 found that, in the case of Valencia College students in Orlando, Florida, those who defaulted on their loans typically suffered academically.

“Default does not impact all borrowers equally: Students who have stopped out or who have completed some college credits but have not yet earned a degree or credential are especially at risk for default,” the report stated.

“Non-traditional-age students, students of color and low-income students are also at greater risk,” it stated. “The median defaulter owes less than $10,000, and students with the smallest amounts of debt are the most likely to default.”

As of 2019, Musick owed about $80,000 in federal loans for her master’s degree — plus at least $3,000 in interest. She said she currently is not sure how much she owes exactly.

“All of the payments that I've made have only been to interest — none of it has touched the principal,” she said. “That means that my loan is actually growing.”

But some others see student loan forgiveness in a different light.

“I’ve paid off nearly all of my student loan debt in the last 10 months and NOW there is talk of canceling it?!” Maria Ducato, of Florida, tweeted with a .gif of Friends actor Matthew Perry repeatedly banging his head against a plank.

“What about the people [like me] who minimized their need for student loans and then paid back those loans like a responsible adult?” replied Julie Coffman to Psaki’s tweet.

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15 cheapest US universities for international students

FILE - A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz.
FILE - A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz.

Yahoo!Finance has compiled a list of the 15 cheapest U.S. universities for international students.

Among them: Arizona State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan State University.

Read the list here. (March 2024)

Studying STEM? International students have funding options

FILE - Founder & CEO Uma Valeti peers into one of the cultivation tanks at the Upside Foods plant, where lab-grown meat is cultivated, in Emeryville, California, Jan. 11, 2023.
FILE - Founder & CEO Uma Valeti peers into one of the cultivation tanks at the Upside Foods plant, where lab-grown meat is cultivated, in Emeryville, California, Jan. 11, 2023.

US News & World Report takes a look at funding options for international students pursuing STEM degrees in the U.S.

The article explains the different kinds of scholarships and grants and offers tips on getting part-time jobs and private student loans. Read the full story here. (March 2024)

US campuses are battlegrounds in free speech debate

Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.
Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.

This week the University of Southern California canceled the graduation speech of its senior class valedictorian at a time when there is a growing debate over the limits of free speech on American college campuses.

USC’s Asna Tabas­sum, a Muslim biomedical engineer major, was selected from among 100 outstanding students to address the graduating class of 2024 this May. However, the school withdrew the invitation for her to speak at the graduation ceremony citing safety concerns.

Tabassum denounced the decision, which she attributed to her public support for Palestinian human rights. She said it is part of “a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”

Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.
Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.

The school maintains it is a safety issue, not about free speech. School officials say they received an alarming number of violent threats after selecting her as speaker.

USC is one of many American universities that have struggled with policies over free speech and campus protest since October’s Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the continuing fighting in Gaza. After weeks or months of on-campus protests and rallies, schools have been taking more forceful action to punish protesters who administrators say have become disruptive.

On Thursday at Columbia University in New York, police arrested more than 100 students who had gathered on campus for pro-Palestinian protests. The school’s dean wrote that the protesters had been told several times that they were violating university policies and would be suspended. The students say they were exercising their free speech rights.

At Washington’s American University, protests in all campus buildings have been banned by the school’s president since January. Under the new policy, students may not hold rallies, engage in silent protests or place posters in any campus building.

Protests and safety

University students have a long history of engaging in political activism. From the Vietnam War to abortion rights, universities have played a key role in American political debates.

However, students now say that schools like AU with a long-standing protest culture are silencing protesters with new rules.

Arusa Islam, American University student body president-elect and current vice president, says the policies are preventing an open discussion about U.S. foreign policy.

“Indoor protesting was never a problem, it was never an issue before October 7th,” Islam said. “Students were allowed to put up posters in buildings and students were allowed to have a silent protest.”

“And now we don’t have that right anymore,” she added. “We have been silenced and it is affecting us greatly.”

American University’s president, Sylvia Burwell, says the school’s new policies are intended to ensure that protests do not disrupt university activity.

Burwell also referred to recent events on campus that “made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” She added, antisemitism is abhorrent, wrong, and will not be tolerated at American University.

While administrators insist that they are making narrow restrictions in the interests of providing an education, critics say the policies have a far-reaching effect.

At Cornell University, where new rules took effect in January, Claire Ting, the executive vice president of the Cornell Student Assembly, said the policies have had an unsettling effect on campus.

“The campus climate at Cornell has been tense surrounding free speech in recent times,” Ting emailed VOA.

Ting said that both students and faculty feel the policy has had chilling effects on free expression.

“Students report facing arbitrary, escalating punishment for violating the policy, with the policy itself lacking clear outlines for the consequences of civil disobedience,” she added.

In its new policy Cornell warns students that disciplinary action may be taken if protests impede people or traffic, damage school property or interfere with the school’s operations in any way.

In its campus-wide notice explaining the new guidelines, the school wrote that the new policy would ensure that expressive activity is allowed but must remain nonviolent.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE, has tracked free speech issues on American campuses.

FIRE and College Pulse have produced an annual survey, since 2022, ranking colleges based on their policies and what students say about the free speech climate on campus.

This year the group reported that “alarming” numbers of students say they self-censor or “find their administrations unclear” on free speech issues.

“College campuses have always been places where students have been unafraid to express themselves and with the recent Gaza conflict after the 10/7 attacks, it’s been very heated on both sides of this issue,” said Zach Greenberg, the senior program officer of FIRE.

Harvard ranked last in this year’s survey. FIRE said the school punished some professors and researchers over what they had said or written, and students reported a poor climate for free speech on campus.

The controversy came to Congress late last year, when Harvard’s president testified over complaints of widespread antisemitism.

Israel-Hamas War Brings Controversy to US Campuses  
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“I don’t think you’d find many students on campus right now that would say we are the model for flourishing free speech and ideas exchange in the country,” said J. Sellers Hill, president of Harvard’s school newspaper The Harvard Crimson.

“But I think you’ve really seen that be acknowledged by administrators and it seems to be something they are dedicated to taking on.”

As the head of The Harvard Crimson, Hill manages the paper’s 350 editors and 90 reporters, who’ve covered, in detail, the ongoing free speech/protests controversy and the resignation of former President Claudine Gay following her testimony to Congress.

“I think no one would dispute Harvard has work to do and progress to make,” Hill said. “I think it’s a tough sell, for me, that Harvard is uniquely in its own league in terms of intolerance of speech. That doesn’t square with what I have seen on our college campus or on other college campuses around the country. I think Harvard is held to a higher standard.”

Proposed settlement offered over financial aid allegations

FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.
FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.

A group of U.S. colleges and universities have agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.

The schools would pay $284 million to plaintiffs who were enrolled full-time and received financial aid between 2003 and 2024.

The schools have denied the allegations. (April 2024)

Universities in Middle East building research relationships with China  

FILE - University students display the flag of the Communist Party of China to mark the party's 100th anniversary during an opening ceremony of the new semester in Wuhan in China's central Hubei, September 10, 2021.
FILE - University students display the flag of the Communist Party of China to mark the party's 100th anniversary during an opening ceremony of the new semester in Wuhan in China's central Hubei, September 10, 2021.

As China bolsters research relationships with universities in the Middle East, the United States has taken notice – especially when that research involves artificial intelligence.

Reporting for University World News, Yojana Sharma has the story. (March 2024)

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