Obama’s New Nuance on His Student Loans

by Nathan L. Gonzales June 13, 2014 · 9:53 AM EDT

President Barack Obama made a fresh case for student loan overhaul with an executive order this week, but he also relayed a much more nuanced version of his own college debt experience.

Over the last couple of years, Obama used his college debt as a compelling anecdote to connect with younger voters and to restructure the student loan system.

“Check this out, all right. I’m the president of the United States. We only finished paying off our student loans off about eight years ago,” Obama said on the campaign trail at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in April 2012. “That wasn’t that long ago. And that wasn’t easy — especially because when we had Malia and Sasha, we’re supposed to be saving up for their college educations, and we’re still paying off our college educations.”

Last August, Obama used a similar story in New York.

“Michelle and I, we didn’t come from rich folks. We did not come from privileged backgrounds. So we’re only where we are today because scholarships and student loans gave us a shot at a good education. And we know a little bit about paying back student loans, because we each graduated from college and law school with a mountain of debt. And even with good jobs, I didn’t pay it off and she didn’t pay off her loans until I was almost a U.S. senator. I was in my 40s,” Obama explained at Henninger High School in Syracuse.

“And remember, again, Michelle and I, we went through this. It took us a long time to pay off our student loans. But we could always manage it. It didn’t get out of hand. And I don’t want debt to keep young people — some of who are here today — from going into professions like teaching, for example, that may not pay as much money, but are of huge value to the country.”

That same day in New York, Obama gave similar remarks at the State University of New York at Buffalo, but with a twist at the end.

“Michelle and I, we’re only where we are today because scholarships and student loans gave us a shot at a great education. And we know a little bit about trying to pay back student loans, too, because we didn’t come from a wealthy family. So we each graduated from college and law school with a mountain of debt. And even though we got good jobs, we barely finished paying it off just before I was elected to the U.S. Senate. Right? I mean, I was in my 40s when we finished paying off our debt. And we should have been saving for Malia and Sasha by that time. But we were still paying off what we had gotten — and we were luckier because most of the debt was from law school. Our undergraduate debt was not as great because tuition had not started shooting up as high.”

The last line might seem like a throwaway, but it appears to be the beginning of an important distinction between undergraduate debt and law school debt that the president explained more on Monday from the White House.

“Michelle and I both went to college because of loans and grants and the work that we did. But I’ll be honest with you — now, I’m old, I’ve got to admit — but when I got out of school, it took me about a year to pay off my entire undergraduate education. That was it. And I went to a private school; I didn’t even go to a public school. So as recently as the ‘70s, the ‘80s, when you made a commitment to college, you weren’t anticipating that you’d have this massive debt on the back end.”

“Now, when I went to law school it was a different story. But that made sense because the idea was if you got a professional degree like a law degree, you would probably be able to pay it off. And so I didn’t feel sorry for myself or any lawyers who took on law school debt.”

The switch is small but more than a little interesting and enlightening. Instead of complaining about a “mountain of debt,” the president admitted that the bulk of his debt was from law school, justified it, and asked people not to feel sorry for him. And according to Obama’s timeline, he didn’t even have any undergraduate loans when he met the first lady, since they apparently met in 1989, at least a handful of years after he finished Columbia University in 1983. Michelle graduated Harvard Law School in 1989; Obama earned his degree in 1991; and the couple married in 1992.

Later in his Monday remarks, the president backed off his personal experience completely, but still agonized over the high cost of college.

“Neither Michelle or I came from a lot of money, but with hard work, and help from scholarships and student loans, we got to go to great schools. We did not have this kind of burden that we’re seeing, at least at the undergraduate stages. As I said, because of law school, we only finished paying off our own student loans just 10 years ago. So we know what many of you are going through or look forward — or don’t look forward to.”

No one is going to say that the cost of college is too low, or that the student loan system is working perfectly for students. But the president’s fresh version of his own college experience moves him from a debt survivor to a more passive, theoretical argument about the cost of higher education — undergraduate education.