President Obama misrepresented the position of Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx on college debt. The president quoted Foxx as saying that she had “very little tolerance for people who tell me they graduate with debt.” But Foxx was speaking explicitly about those with very large amounts of debt, a fact that Obama omitted and that changes the meaning of the North Carolina congresswoman’s statement.
The sin of omission was in Obama’s speech in Boulder, Colo., as the president pushed for the extension of current federal student loan interest rates.
Obama, April 24: I want to read a quote. This is from a Republican congresswoman. I didn’t really understand this. (Laughter.) I’m quoting her. She said that she has “very little tolerance for people who tell me they graduate with debt… because there’s no reason for that.” She said, students who rack up student loan debt are just sitting on their butts, having opportunity “dumped in your lap.”
Audience: Booo —
Obama: You guys can Google her or what have you.
At the president’s suggestion, we did Google her. Those remarks were made by Foxx on the G. Gordon Liddy radio show on April 12. But Obama cut out a key part of her statement, changing the meaning of what she actually said.
Foxx, April 12: I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that. We live in an opportunity society and people are forgetting that. I remind folks all the time that the Declaration of Independence says ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ You don’t sit on your butt and have it dumped in your lap.
The president’s remarks suggest that any college student who graduates with debt is intolerable to Foxx, but that’s not accurate. She explicitly mentions only students with very high debt burdens — above $80,000. This is well above the average level of college debt even at the most expensive universities.
The Institute for College Access and Success found that, in 2010, two-thirds of college graduates faced debt after graduation and that the average debt burden was $25,250. This varied greatly from state to state and campus to campus, but the debt burden at even the most expensive colleges averaged only $55,250 — well short of the type of debt situation described by Foxx.
‘Sit On Your Butt?’
Foxx’s suggestion that students should not “sit on your butt” may stem from her personal experience. “I worked my way” through the University of North Carolina, she said in the interview. “It took seven years.” She even worked in high school as a school janitor.
But she graduated in 1968 when college was less expensive — and work was easier to find.
Back then, costs were roughly half of what they are today, even adjusting for inflation. According to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 1967-68 school year, the cost of tuition, room and board at a public institution like UNC averaged $6,716 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). In the 2009-2010 school year, the figure was $12,681 for public institutions, and $31,876 for private schools.
And jobs were easier to get. In 1968, the national unemployment rate for individuals of college age (16 through 24) ranged from 8.1 percent to 9.6 percent, depending on the month. More recently it’s been nearly double that — 16.4 percent in March, down from 17.5 percent a year earlier.
Nevertheless, Obama twisted Foxx’s words by omitting a crucial part of her quote, making it sound as though she was saying any amount of student loan debt is a sign of laziness. That is not accurate.
— Scott Blackburn