I have worked as a higher education instructor, researcher and administrator for more than four decades. Over that span, I’ve seen many presidential campaigns, and in almost every case, higher education has not been a plank in the platform of either of the major parties. Those of us in the groves of academe may have been ignored by presidential candidates in the past, but at least we knew that we would not be troubled by them.
Ah, for the good old days!
This year, higher education seems to be a part of every candidate’s agenda. (See, for example, “Punch Lines Versus Polish on Iowa Trail,” The New York Times, Jan. 1, 2016.) The Democratic candidates are focused on making college far more affordable – even tuition-free in the mind of at least one candidate. The Republican candidates are focused on affordability as well, but with much greater emphasis on the need for institutions to reduce their prices and/or the need for Washington to reduce federal financial aid – since some argue that it is the easy availability of federal grants and subsidized loans that permitted colleges to raise their prices so much in the first place (although there are few studies that support that contention, and many that refute it). Finally, at least one candidate is focused on “practical” education (“we need more welders and less [sic] philosophers,” “In GOP Debate, Rubio Again Criticizes Philosophy,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 11, 2015).
As the political primaries take place, with the inevitable coalescing behind a single candidate in each major party, it will be interesting to see how these various ideas play out: How will each of them be received by the American public, and which one will emerge as the most important?
In Part 1, I argued that the proper way of determining whether college was worth the investment was first to examine four distinct concerns—high cost, high debt, scarce jobs, and low graduation rates. Last week, in part 2, we looked at the first of these concerns: has college simply become too expensive for many families? This week, we’ll examine the second concern:
There is a student debt “bubble” that is preventing young college graduates from buying homes, starting families, and thereby acting as a drain on the entire economy.
In Part 1 of this blog post, I asserted that the question of whether college was worth the investment needed to be answered through the analysis of four distinct areas of concern. In this week’s post, we will examine the first of these concerns:
Higher education has become too expensive for too many families, and, as a consequence, too many prospective students are being squeezed out of the market.
This statement is widespread, and generally accepted as true. There is no shortage of “evidence,” much of it focused on the rapid escalation of the published prices for tuition—prices that, in most segments of the higher education community and at most campuses within those segments, have risen substantially more rapidly than has the rate of inflation.
There was a time, not so many years ago, when college presidents bemoaned their inability to attract much public attention to what they were doing. Ah, for the good old days! We now receive attention from every quarter, and more advice—and criticism, some of it rather hostile—than we know what to do with. We are suffering from a classic case of “be careful what you wish for.”
Consider the range of opinions expressed in the following four comments. An editorial in USA Today (June 4, 2014) includes the following quotes:
“Colleges are able to increase costs without consequence largely because easy access to federal aid assures them a steady supply of students, so debt keeps piling up, which is not just a problem for the students. Taxpayers are vulnerable as students default, for instance, and home building is stifled as debt-laden young people resist taking on mortgages.”
For the past 18 months, I have made numerous posts wherein I have described my reactions to seeing the gradual disintegration of both the public and private models of higher education, in a manner akin to watching a slow-motion train wreck.
Well, the rate of disintegration is increasing. The slow-motion train wreck is speeding up. Consider five categories of evidence from the news media in recent weeks:
(1) The gap between the wealthy privates and everyone else is becoming a chasm.
My claim in my blog post of Oct. 15, 2013, that, in some respects, the wealthy colleges and universities seem more like investment companies that do a little teaching on the side now seems more prophetic than ever. Two recent articles make the case.
For the past 18 months, the media (and, subsequently, the politicians) have been focused on the rising tide of student debt. Two issues have attracted particular attention: first, the fact that total student debt has (a) exceeded $1 trillion, or, expressed alternatively, (b) exceeded the total of credit card debt; and second, the fact that some individuals have accumulated more than $100,000 in student debt.
News stories have become increasingly frantic. For example:
In a March 9 editorial, The New York Times cited a federal analysis from 2009 that “found that 10 percent of borrowers with private loans were spending more than 25 percent of their incomes in monthly payments.” But of the 60 percent of students who borrow, only about one-third (20 percent) have private loans – so the 10 percent of private borrowers who are spending more than 25 percent of their incomes in loan payments represent just 2 percent of all graduates. Those large payments are a huge problem – but only for a very small number of individuals.
A Bloomberg.com post on May 7 was headlined “Bankers Warn Fed of Farm, Student Loan Bubbles Echoing Subprime.” That’s a pretty scary headline – but the article conflates a meeting of the Federal Advisory Council on February 8, 2013, relating to farmland prices, where the term “bubble” was in fact used, with a meeting of the same group a year earlier (February 3, 2012) relating to student loan debt, where “bubble” was not used.
Last week, I commented on Charles M. Blow’s March 9 column in The New York Times, which focused on the problem of student debt. I discussed the factors that contributed to the sudden growth of educational debt and steps that are necessary to rectify the problem (or would at least prevent it from becoming worse).
I ran out of room before I could get to the issue of assessing how big a problem student debt really is – hence, Part II this week.
On the one hand, student debt has increased dramatically: roughly $1 trillion in total debt, more than twice what it was just eight years ago, and larger in size than the total of all credit card debt. On an individual level, approximately half of the student population borrows to finance their education, and they graduate owing an average of about $26,000.