Current Affairs

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Why The Student Debt Catastrophe Was Avoidable

Reporter Josh Mitchell explains how government policy commodified higher education, which created the conditions for debt levels to soar.

Josh Mitchell is a reporter for the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal where he writes about the economy and higher education. He is the author of the book The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe, available from Simon and Schuster. Mitchell recently appeared on the Current Affairs podcast to explain why the student loan system is a “catastrophic” way of financing college education and how Congress and Wall Street jointly created the present crisis.

Robinson

Your book talks a lot about the history of the development of our current situation with student loans. But first, I want to start with this question of whether the student loan situation is properly categorized as a catastrophe. Sometimes you hear a certain rhetoric from politicians such as, students who borrow have an obligation to pay back. They went to college. They borrowed money. A college degree is a valuable investment. Yes, it looks like a lot of money. But you can’t tell much from the fact that there is a large pool of outstanding debt. The fact is that these are a privileged group of people who go to college and get degrees. Yes, they’re on the hook for a few years. But this is not a catastrophe. Start by explaining why you have come to view the student loan situation as something properly categorized as a catastrophe.

Mitchell

Nice to be with you. Sure. Let’s go back to the end of 2019, right before the pandemic. The economy was actually pretty solid. And even back then, more than one in five students were at least three months behind on their student loans. That is a very high default rate. If you compare that to the peak of how much mortgage debt was three months behind at the height of the housing crisis, it’s more than twice that. So just comparing this to the housing crisis, there are far more people as a percentage of overall debt that are defaulting on their loans. They can’t repay them. If you look at the effect that it’s having on people’s ability to buy houses, to start businesses, to save for retirement—these are things that are kind of hard to notice on a day to day basis—there’s a lot of research to show that student loans are really net negatively impacting people’s ability to make these types of investments that over the long run will lead to wealth. If you look at how much debt is just quote unquote, non performing, there are a lot of people who are not necessarily in default on their loans. But they are not making payments that are big enough to actually cover the interest on these loans. So the balance is rising. This is kind of like being upside down on your home loan, which was a big deal during the housing crisis. So a similar thing is going on right now. So while someone may not be in default, their balance is growing and growing and growing, and it stays with them for years and years. A student loan used to be a 10 year obligation. Now, it’s a 30 year obligation in a lot of cases. So if we can call the housing crisis a crisis, I don’t see how, by any metric, you can say that student loans are not a crisis.

Robinson

You talk in the book about the human beings that are underneath this story. The reality is that for millions of borrowers, there’s the stress of seeing such a large part of your income go toward loan payments and never getting anywhere with it. We resign ourselves to not being able to buy a house or a car or have kids, but it creates this real feeling of hopelessness. And you also talk about the feeling of guilt that a lot of people have, this sense that it’s their fault that they made a bad choice, and now they’re stuck with this mountain of debt.

Mitchell

Or shame. I think shame is probably the number one word to describe how a lot of borrowers feel when they see how much they owe, and they’re trying really hard to pay it back. They feel like they did everything they were supposed to do. And they end up not being able to stay on top of their loans. Every single borrower I talked to was very ashamed of it, and they didn’t quite know why. They felt like the system was very opaque. If you think about how these loans are awarded from the get go, there really isn’t a lot of transparency. You take out multiple loans a year, and each time you take out a loan, there are different terms. One time I asked a consultant who basically consults colleges to advise them on how much they should charge for tuition. This is a huge cottage industry that tells colleges, This is how much you should charge for each individual student so that you can get the maximum amount of money out of them. And I asked him, Why do you only advise them on what to charge freshman year versus sophomore year, junior year? And he said, Because once they get them in as freshmen, you know, it’s that much easier just to raise it 3 or 4% every year. You try to get the maximum level when they’re freshmen, but they’re not going to transfer once they’re in. The interest rate and tuition is set for freshman year, and then very quickly, it’s 3%-4% higher, and then after four years, when it’s been rising at 4% a year, that actually ends up being a very big increase at the end of your stay. And on top of that, interest rates often rise and you don’t know it. The interest rates are set by Congress. And this gets to your original question of the feeling of shame, and also a lack of control. I talked with a guy who was an orthodontist who went to University of Southern California and who has a million dollars in student debt. And he said that every year when he saw the interest rate rising, he didn’t know what to do, because he felt like, Okay, I’m two years into it, I can’t end it now. That’s why I call it the debt trap. He’s in quicksand.

Robinson

It’s a trap, right? If you leave, you’re leaving without a degree and with a giant pile of debt. And if you stay, you’re leaving with even more debt. One of the things I didn’t really realize until reading your book is the way that college financial advisors and financial aid officers have a conflict of interest. They sit down with students as if they’re trying to help them. But they often offer reassurances that aren’t true. The answer is always, Yes, it’s a good idea for you to come here. The degree will be worth it. But they are not independent financial advisors. The financial aid officers say, We’re here for you. And that’s quite misleading. And students are the least sophisticated consumers in the entire economy, right? Teenagers. Who’s more impulsive, who makes worse judgments, who has less experience with finance? Nobody. This is the group of people least qualified to make serious financial decisions.

Mitchell

Let’s just go back to the consultants I just mentioned. For years, schools have had a lot of information and data on students to really understand their behavior, and what it’s going to take for them to enroll in that school. So these consultants gather data, dozens of characteristics on each student, everything from the longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates of their homes, the educational attainment level of their parents, how much wealth their parents have, how much money their parents earn, what their SAT scores are, and they use all these characteristics to boil down to the penny how much they can charge you so that you will go to that school versus a competitor school. The parents and students, for years, have had no access to such information. It was only in the past few years under the Obama administration that the Education Department created this website called the college scorecard that finally started to empower students just a bit in terms of how much they could expect to earn if they went into this major at this school. Only in the past few years have parents and students been finally getting access to some information to understand what it is they’re getting into. But up until now, they’ve had to take it as an article of faith that this would pay off. And in fact, they were told for so long, by their schools, by members of Congress, by different presidential administrations, and by local town council members that education is the best investment for you. And in fact, you have to go to school. If you want to make it in today’s economy, you have to go to college. There’s been a massive imbalance between the information that the schools have and what the students have, and this is where I don’t know that the concept of individual responsibility really applies here when you have so many major institutions in society telling you that you have to make this choice to make it in today’s economy.

Robinson

You have all of these reputable schools soliciting you with the glossy brochures and telling you they can change your life if you come here. How much do you think this is all a big accident as a result of well-intentioned people creating a system that had poorly aligned incentives versus the greed of colleges that are running themselves like businesses and predatory loan companies looking to make a buck? How do you think about the question of whether this is all just a well-intentioned mistake?

Mitchell

That’s a really good question. I struggle with that. And I would say it’s 50-50. The intentions were good. If you go back to why the Higher Education Act was passed in 1965, there was a huge emphasis on equality back then, as there is now. We were in the thick of the civil rights movement. I talked to people like Alice Rivlin, who, at the time, was in the Johnson administration. She played a role in what was then the Education Department. It wasn’t called the Education Department, but for all intents and purposes, it was. There were people like her that were really trying to look scientifically at how to use policy. How do we use public policy to really address these problems when it comes to inequality? They really thought education was the key. We have to also acknowledge that the student loan program really was created in some ways to engage in budget gimmickry. Congress, during the Johnson administration, wanted to provide education as cheaply as possible. And they did this by relying on banks to make loans. And I think this is where higher education in our country really became a commodity—they introduced this profit motive in the ‘60s. And it was simply to ensure that the federal budget was unscathed. There was a really big concern about federal spending in the ‘60s, because this was part of this era of the Great Society programs. And Lyndon Johnson was very ambitious about what he wanted the government to do. The Vietnam War was ramping up. And so things were looking really costly. There was this understanding that if you can convince banks to make loans versus the U.S. Treasury Department, then the budget will be unscathed, and it’ll be a win-win situation. Students will pay back their loans, and banks will make money, and Washington won’t have to actually pony up money on the front end to make this work. But what I argue is that, by the 1980s, when Sallie Mae started to ramp up—I think that this is as much a book about Sallie Mae as about anything else. This responds directly to your question. Of all the things that Congress has created and has done in its history, I have to think one of the biggest train wrecks was creating Sallie Mae. When we talk about greed, Congress actually put in the law that this is a for-profit company. And so in some ways, it legislated greed. It told these investors, It is your obligation by law to make money off of this program. I talked to every CEO of Sallie Mae. I talked to the very first CEO. His name is Ed Fox. He was the founding CEO, and he didn’t have this strong mission to provide higher education. In fact, he said, I had no idea about anything about colleges. But he liked the idea of making money and starting a company and making it successful and rewarding investors. So, yes, there were good intentions. But Congress in a very sloppy way started a train wreck.

Robinson

The way you describe Sallie Mae sounds like you’ve got the worst of the public sector and the worst of the private sector in one institution. So, I hesitate to ask you to describe how Sallie Mae worked, because, as you pointed out in the book, even members of Congress don’t quite understand how Sallie Mae worked. But essentially, you have a quasi-governmental institution? Or it’s established by the government, but it’s a for-profit corporation?

Mitchell

Right.

Robinson

At the beginning, it was owned by universities and..

Mitchell

Banks.

Robinson

And they’re tasked with making all the student loans in America?

Mitchell

Right. The best description that I came across when it came to what Sallie Mae did was from Bill Ford, who was their main champion in Congress. He was a Michigan Democratic who headed the education panel in the house. At one point, he said, basically, it’s a money laundering operation, and the money that it’s laundering is taxpayers’ money. So Sallie Mae was a for-profit company, but it was overseen by Congress. It had a board that oversaw the company, and the members of the board were appointed by Congress and the executive branch. But other than that, it was a for-profit corporation. And so the issue is, again, that Congress wanted to keep the loan program off the books so that it would not look expensive to taxpayers. And so they needed to get banks to make loans. Because inflation was rising in the ‘60s and ‘70s, banks said, for years and years, You’re not compensating us enough for making loans to students. We have a certain amount of capital, a certain amount of money, on our books that we want to use to make money. And so we would make more money by giving homeowners loans versus students. And LBJ and Congress kept on saying, No, we need you to make student loans. We need everyone to have access to student loans. And so finally, the chief lobbyist of the American Bankers Association came up with this idea and said, Look, why don’t you create this for-profit company that’ll get access to Treasury money, but it will still be off the books? In other words, you don’t really have to account for this money in the federal budget each year. So it’ll still look cheap. But in some backdoor way, give this money to this Corporation, which will then give money to banks, which will then give money to loans. So it was basically just adding in all of these middlemen. And I would say Sallie Mae was like the engine of the student loan program. It simply took Treasury Department money and gave it to banks, which gave it to students. And the more loans it had on its book, the more money it made, which is a very key concept. I don’t know if you want to go into that. But that is an incredibly important concept that explains why this became such a profit center. There was no risk in terms of bankers and investors losing money. In fact, the risk was that if they didn’t get money out the door fast enough, they would be leaving profits on the table.

Robinson

And so what eventually happens is that because there is a perverse incentive to give as many loans as possible, every loan given represents an income stream from a student, but that income stream is backed by the government so that it’s, in fact, low risk, even though under normal circumstances, we would want to evaluate whether a particular degree was worth it for a student and whether they could, in fact, pay back the loans. So these combinations of bad features of the system result in a lot of fly-by-night, private universities charging high tuition, but anyone can get a loan. So students come to wherever they can get a degree. They’re paying a fortune. They’re taking on massive debt. And the people at Sallie Mae don’t care because the more loans given out, the better. Is that what’s going on?

Mitchell

Right. Let’s just take a look at the schools. It wasn’t just for-profit schools. Some of Sallie Mae’s biggest shareholders were Harvard University and Brown University and Dartmouth—these Ivy League schools that were really starting to raise their tuition to really high levels. So the schools benefited in two ways. Every time someone took out a student loan, Sallie Mae’s profits would go up. And therefore the schools would directly enjoy some of this profits as its top shareholders. But then on top of that—they made this argument explicitly—they kept saying, Congress, if you expand availability of student loans, you will allow us to raise our tuition more. And we need to raise our tuition tuition more because we need to pay professors more and giving people college education is really expensive. This is good for the United States; it’s good for the students. We need to raise tuition more so that we have more money so that we can provide a better product. And so the more availability you had of student loans, the easier it was for schools to charge tuition. It became as easy as pressing a computer key that students were able to take out tens of thousands of dollars in debt. But yes, that’s pretty much how it works.

Robinson

College education has gotten ridiculously expensive. How much of the college’s argument for why the price is necessary is bogus? To some degree, everything rises in prices over time. And it may be the case that if you’re offering better education, it is, in fact, more costly. You want to pay more professors. But how much do you think this is just bloat, and if they had had better incentives to cut costs, they could have delivered the same education for a much lower price?

Mitchell

I think a lot of it is bloat. Let me put it this way. In my research, I looked at about 70 years or so. I went back to the early 1900s. And there was never a time when schools said, We have enough money. Even in the ‘60s and through the ‘80s—the so-called golden era of higher education, when the government really got involved by providing student loans. They had a ton of money that was just coming their way as Washington got more and more involved. And in the late ‘70s, when baby boomers started to get older and enter the workforce, colleges put out this report. One of their big trade groups put out this report that basically said, There’s a looming depression in higher education, and if you don’t provide more loans, we’re going to be in a crisis. I mention this because they had just gotten all of this money. And yet, they were still saying that they needed more money. If you look at per pupil spending as a share of GDP, United States spends far more than the OECD average. Even if you look at funding at two year public community colleges, we still spend more than the OECD average of all colleges. If you look at how many presidents make a million dollars or more right now, including public school presidents, I think there are 72, last time I checked. Not all of them are public schools, a lot of them are private schools. But this has become a huge, huge industry. And if you just look at the amount of money that’s going into it, I think a lot of it is bloat—you know, triple the rate of inflation. If you look at a chart that shows what tuition did, the era of skyrocketing college tuition began right around the 1980s. It just absolutely skyrocketed. And I argue there were at least two things going. One was, the economy really started to shift. And so this is when the college wage premium opened up as the economy became more of a global economy. As the decline of manufacturing sped up in the ‘80s, the wages of college graduates went up, and the wages of non graduates went down. So demand for colleges just really went up. But this was also right around when Sallie Mae and the loan industry really started to pick up. It’s hard to know what tuition would have done if there had been a more disciplined system. But I do think it’s a huge problem. I would interview the college presidents themselves, and they sort of admit this.

Robinson

What did they say, We don’t really need to build this giant new facility?

Mitchell

One president that I quote in the book was the president of Kalamazoo College in the ‘80s, this small liberal arts school. He said, We had hired a lot of professors and administrators. And then we started to experience some tough times in the mid ‘80s, I faced a choice: Do I lay off my employees or charge students more? And he said, I charged students more. And the reason he was able to do that was that the government basically gave them loans and allowed them to pay the higher tuition. And so when the rubber meets the road, the colleges feel like the worst thing in the world that could happen is for them to cut costs. They have to find a way to get more money. And they’ve been able to do that because of the loan program.

Robinson

You also talk about how the competition for students began to factor in as well, partially because of the US News and World Report rankings, right? Colleges have to then market themselves to students if they’re going to get them. There’s this awful free-for-all where the tuition rises and everyone’s everyone’s trying to out compete for the same students.

Mitchell

Right. People like Alice Rivlin and a lot of economists, too, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, were thinking about what student loans could do. They thought that student loans would increase pricing competition and force colleges to compete on price. They thought that they could turn higher education into a normal marketplace, like a free market where, if you empower students by giving them loans, students can shop around, and the schools will want to compete for those students. And so they will offer cheaper prices. And instead, the opposite happened. Schools competed on prestige, not on price. And so they wanted to convince people that they were the most prestigious school and they figured out there’s a term for this. I can’t think of the term. It has to do with a famous brand of whiskey. But basically they figured out that if you charge higher prices, regardless of how good of a school you are, students will automatically assume that you’re a high quality school.

Robinson

Oh, I found it. Is this the Chivas Regal effect?

Mitchell

Yeah. The idea is that if you go into a store and you’re trying to buy a bottle of whiskey, and there are two brands, and you know nothing about the quality of each brand, a certain number of people will go with the more expensive brands.

Robinson

So why haven’t a group of schools come out and said, What we offer is freedom from a lifetime of debt? We can give you a cheap degree.

Mitchell

Well, if you look at tuition inflation, it has actually slowed down in the past 10 years. Up until around 2010, there was still this notion that student debt was a good investment. When the Occupy Wall Street movement started to happen, and defaults on student loans were soaring, the for-profit school boom had just popped. That’s when students and families really started to question whether higher education was, in fact, a good investment. If you look at polls, the WSJ/NBC News poll a few years back asked the question, Do you think college is worth it? And about half the country said Yes, but half the country said No. That was a dramatic turnaround from just four years prior. So we are seeing schools saying, we realize tuition has gotten out of control. So I do think there’s been a little bit of a shift.

Robinson

Why is it that the existing means of controlling absurd student debt amounts don’t work? So we have the income-based repayment and the forgiveness after 25 years? Why isn’t that working to limit what people have to pay in a way that makes it manageable?

Mitchell

Basically it’s exacerbating the problem, I think. This is the same thing that happened with the 30 year mortgage. If you want people to qualify for a bigger loan, you have them pay it over 30 years instead of 10 years. And so, therefore, you can take out more and more debt on the front end, to pay more and more for the house. It’s the same thing with these income-based repayment plans. They didn’t really address the underlying issue, and I think they made it worse. Instead of saying you have to pay your loans in 10 years, now you pay them over 25 years or even longer sometimes. It just allows you to take on that much more debt, but it softens the blow from having a high monthly payment. You just spread it out, but then you’re paying so much in interest. Schools know this. And when you talk to the financial aid officers at the schools, they are actively telling students, Don’t worry about the fact that you’re getting into tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I know that you’re a sophomore, and you’re starting to worry about this balance that’s rising and rising. But guess what, there’s this program called income-based repayment. When you come out, you’re only gonna have to pay 10% of your income. So you’ll always be able to stay on time with your payments. But the flip side of that is in the long run, you’re often paying a lot more because the interest accrues.

Robinson

There are a number of really important facts that people aren’t necessarily aware of that come out in your book. I certainly didn’t know that there were people having their Social Security checks garnished to pay for their student loans, which is just shocking. But because I had read your reporting before, I did know about the people who have over a million dollars in student debt. And I think people also don’t necessarily know that student loans are racially skewed. Black borrowers have the highest amounts of student debt.

Mitchell

Yeah. As a reporter, I try to avoid the term systemic racism, because I just feel like it’s become a buzzword. When Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass the Higher Education Act of ‘65—and even if you go through every administration since then—they were on board with this concept that if you’re poor, if you grew up with disadvantage, and by default, that’s going to cover a lot of minority students, then you really should have a lot of your costs, if not all of your costs, covered by taxpayers through grants, which are essentially scholarships. You don’t pay back grants. And the whole idea was to have the middle class take out low-interest loans, but have the poor have their costs covered. And it didn’t quite turn out that way. And if you look at a fed survey of consumer finances by racial breakdown, the households that have seen student debt rise the most over the past 20 years are, by far, Black households. In the early 2000s, Black people had the least amount of student debt, and now they have the most. There is an economic imperative for that. A Black worker with a graduate degree makes as much as a white worker with only a college degree. There’s been a surge in Black students who are enrolling in graduate programs, and I think this is why. The data shows that there’s an economic imperative for that. In this perverse way, this system that was meant to level inequality has, I think, increased it.

Robinson

Is there any way to get out of this that does not involve large scale debt forgiveness? People have accrued so much debt at this point. If it can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, it follows them forever. Do you think we should open up the policy conversation to large scale forgiveness?

Mitchell

I think there is a bipartisan consensus, at least under the Trump and Obama administrations, to loosen bankruptcy laws to make it easier for students to discharge loans in bankruptcy. It’s not impossible, but it is very hard to discharge your loans in bankruptcy. There does seem to be low-hanging fruit here. And there is a moral issue here. You know that one of the main characters of my book had been paying down her loans for 18 years and had paid back the original amount she borrowed, and then some, but she was enrolled in this 30 year repayment plan. She had originally $125,000 but was still at $100,000. She was in her mid 50s, she had two kids going off to college, and she could never get ahead of the loans. She declared bankruptcy and the Education Department fought her for two years to prevent her from discharging into bankruptcy. She had cancer. Two weeks after she filed for bankruptcy, she got breast cancer, and she’s just thinking she’s going to spend the rest of her life, however much longer she has, fighting the Education Department to get out of this debt that she made a good faith effort to repay. She saved nothing for retirement. And it didn’t quite make sense. She said, The government’s treating me like I committed a crime here when I’m just trying to do the best I can as a single mother to make ends meet. Even Sallie Mae and a lot of institutions that fought for these tougher bankruptcy laws now say we should probably loosen them. So I think that’s low-hanging fruit that both parties can converge to agree on now. I don’t think you’re gonna see massive debt forgiveness. But I will say the Biden administration does seem to be trying to use every single little provision of law that entitles them to forgive debt for certain groups if you felt like you were defrauded by your for-profit college.

Robinson

Does the whole idea of financing college through debt need revisiting? You said that in the early days, people did talk about funding college through scholarships. And we have public high schools. You don’t go into high school debt. You don’t have to take out a high school loan that you pay back over the course of 10 years or 20 years. To my mind, I feel like we need a shift in thinking about college more like high school. Free public college makes sense to me. In the book you do say that we should make sure that at least a year of college is free so everyone can try it.

Mitchell

Right. Very good question. I have thought about it as high school, too. What’s interesting is that you have conservatives wanting more and more vouchers in high school. But I think conservatives recognize that the student loan system, which is essentially a voucher system on higher education, is a mess. It’s interesting to see how the parties are for or against vouchers in one area of education, but switch roles in the other area. I would say the difference between higher education and high school is that our policy in higher education is not just that you should have access to public school but any school. When I was in high school, I used to watch 90210, and I used to be like, Oh, my God, I wish I could go to Beverly Hills High. But I didn’t have that option. Taxpayers did not give me a loan to go across the country to spend a ton of tuition at Beverly Hills High. Whereas with higher education, you can go to any school in any state at any price, and the government will give you a blank check. If we’re going to have a discussion about whether college should be treated more like high school, it should also come with this question of how much choice should students have in terms of where they go. I’m increasingly personally in favor of this idea of giving people access to a good quality in-state school. But don’t give them $100,000 to go to the University of Alabama because they want to go to a big football school, which comes up in my book. There was an 18 year old who lived in Florida, which gives you good access to cheap in-state schools.

Robinson

I’m from Florida. I remember that.

Mitchell

So he went to Alabama, because it was like this Disney-fied, great, fun university, gorgeous campus. I’ve been there. Best football program in the country. And it cost him and his mom $150,000. That to me is weird, because that is a public school.

Robinson

It’s not to say that there aren’t bad decisions made by teenagers going to college, because clearly, there are. But it’s almost like you want to construct a system that doesn’t let teenagers make decisions that are so bad that they’re going to land themselves in debt for 30 years of their lives.

Mitchell

Right. I think my book is as much about risk as anything else. All of these big institutions learn to reduce or entirely eliminate any risk that they would lose money, and all of the risk falls onto the students. Going back to your question about debt financing college. I guess I would say you just need to rebalance that risk. You need to make sure that in this huge financial transaction, consumers are very well informed, and that there are some guardrails. As you say, even if you’re the most sophisticated consumer, if you’re 18 years old, you’re just learning what it means to have debt. And it’s impossible to really understand the consequences until you actually start repaying it.

Robinson

It seems foolish to trust institutions. The kid who went to Howard University sours on Howard, but it takes time because he’s going to the most prestigious HBCU in the country. And so people have very bitter experiences, but they have to go through the process of disillusionment in order to realize that they may be…

Mitchell

And this is also a federal program. I’ve had so many people say, It was a federal program. It’s not a private lender. You know, I assumed that the federal government had my best interests at heart. That’s one of the reasons people have become so disillusioned. We see this broader populist movement and a broader disillusionment in our society, of distrust of institutions. Higher education is a big aspect of this. If you look at the rise of Trump, if you look at how the political parties have shaken themselves out, increasingly, the Democrats are the party of college graduates, and the Republicans are the party of non graduates. And I think it has a lot to do with a lot of distrust in these big institutions.

Robinson

Well, there’s so much more we could talk about. We only scratched the surface of it. In this book, you tell lots of different stories about people who made the system and people who are now subject to the system. The book is The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe, available from Simon and Schuster. Josh Mitchell, thank you so much for talking.

Mitchell

Sure. Thanks.

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