On Monday, April 14, 2014, the Lumina Foundation convened a group of opinion leaders in Washington, D.C., to discuss college affordability, federal student loan policies and the role of states in supporting public colleges and universities (The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Paying for College: Experts Gather in Search of New Models,” April 15, 2014).
Unfortunately, the experts came up empty.
One commentator noted that “affordable” does not necessarily mean “cheap.” Another touted the merits of a net-price calculator designed to show the number of years after graduation at which “the benefits of college outweigh the cumulative costs.” A third suggested that greater numbers of women and minorities should choose more lucrative majors.
I hope the Lumina Foundation did not overly deplete its endowment to pay for these platitudes and in-the-box thinking.
There is no shortage of commentary regarding the problems of higher education. Too often, however, the wrong people are in the conversation. It’s a waste of time to attempt to convince people of the righteousness of your position if the people to whom you are speaking already agree with you – and if your arguments aren’t precise, you can actually do your cause damage by providing the other side with free ammunition.
By way of example, Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, has recently written a book with the provocative title of Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream. Essays drawn from the book appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 7, The New York Times on March 1, and a news article on the book was in the Epoch Times on March 31.
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.