Why does Senator Elizabeth Warren repeat a (fairly new but inaccurate) canard?

University of Wisconsin sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab, AFT President Randy Weingarten, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are at a forum on student debt this morning. Goldrick-Rab just asked on Twitter why Warren sticks to her rhetorical position that the federal government “profits” from student loans:

Since I am writing a paper on (at least apparently) dysfunctional discourses, just a quick thought here: that’s a great question! Why does Senator Warren keep repeating a misleading claim, and one that may undermine the federal government as the entity that disburses loans? I’m not persuaded by the various explanations of such rhetorical stubbornness that talks about epistemic closure a la climate-change denialism and other forms of ideological purity tests. That’s a sophisticated form of ad-hominem argument: you’re stubborn and stupid. Certainly that exists (and not just among your particular political adversaries), but there are plenty of very smart, generally honest people who show no signs of epistemic closure but stick to factual claims long beyond the point where you’d expect a little acknowledgment that they’d been incorrect to some degree… such as Warren on federal-government “profits,” which may be about as reliable to “book” as repayments of a personal loan by your brother.

In Warren’s case, it’s pretty simple: she’s had enormously positive feedback on the original use of the rhetoric. There are thousands of constituents in Massachusetts who are sure they’re being gouged for college expenses, both during college and afterwards, and her claim addresses their real pain. That positive response overwhelms the wonkish scolds who note that while many students and former students are incurring or suffering under significant college debt loads, the claim of federal “profit” is half-true at best. Sorry, fellow nerds: facts are weak tea against the political equivalent of 10,000 “likes” on Facebook.

In addition, her original use of the term borrows from an historical reality that until 2010, student loans went through private and very much for-profit middlemen, and that a substantial number of existing loans began before 2010 and repayments of those loans are still feeding profits of those erstwhile middleman companies. Again, fellow nerds and wonks, the reality of the majority of middle-aged college alumni* is that part of their repayments are in the form of profits. Maybe not federal-government profit, but profit nonetheless from their wallets to someone else’s. Warren’s use of the term profit is the discourse equivalent of a consonantal shift in language: the trope is the same (profit), even if the target is different (federal government, not private student loan industry).

So we have two ingredients for stickiness of inaccurate public rhetoric: the legacy of past discourse that is cannibalized and adapted to new use, and some mechanism to license that new use. In Warren’s case, the license mechanism is public approval.

Alumni refers to anyone who attended a school, whether a graduate or not. So the most accurate term for people who left college, with or without a degree, and student loans? Alumni.

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