A majority of Americans want education programs protected from the possible deep, mandatory spending cuts that will go into effect at the end of this year if Congress does not reach a budget deal, according to a poll released Friday by the Committee for Education Funding and the Foundation for Education Investments. The poll, conducted by YouGov, found 55 percent of Americans thought education spending should be protected from the cuts. The Pell Grant was considered among the most important education programs: 53 percent of respondents said it should be protected. (In fact, the Pell Grant program is not immediately threatened by sequestration, as the mandatory budget cuts are called.)
Scientific research, another priority for many colleges and universities in the federal budget crunch, fared less well. Only 34 percent of respondents said they believed research should be protected from cuts. When asked about specific education programs, only 30 percent said it was very important to protect scientific and biomedical research at universities.
Student loan debt is soaring. Since 1999, average student loan debt has increased by more than 500 percent, and in 2010, it exceeded outstanding credit card debt for the first time in history. Total outstanding student loan debt, by some counts, exceeded $1 trillion this year.
While many approaches have been taken to the problem (trying to cut university costs, for example), there seem to be just two proposals for lessening the burden on the students themselves. These are to allow the loans to be discharged in bankruptcy or to forgive the loans altogether. Both have been the subject of Congressional bills.
Only one of these has the proper long-term incentive effects, and even it should be hedged with some restrictions: restoring limited bankruptcy protection. That is, students should be allowed to get out of their student loan burden as part of bankruptcy proceedings, just as they are able to get out of car loans now. However, this option should be restricted to private loans and should be allowed only after a set amount of time, such as 5 or 7 years, as it was prior to 2005.
While Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has proposed the idea of restoring bankruptcy protection for borrowers of private student loans several times, it has gone nowhere. Instead, there’s a growing chorus in favor of loan forgiveness. U.S. Representative Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.) introduced H.R. 4170, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, earlier this year.
The law would allow students to pay just 10 percent of their discretionary income for 10 years, whatever their total loan amount; then, the remaining debt would be canceled. This is the “10-10 standard.”
In addition, under this bill, the current 3.4 percent cap on undergraduate student loan interest rates (enacted by Congress as a temporary measure) would be made permanent. Private borrowers whose educational loan debt exceeded their income would be allowed to convert their private loan debt into federal Direct Loans, and then enroll in the “10-10” program.
A critical part of the bill is to reward graduates for entering public service professions -- like teaching and firefighting -- with even greater forgiveness. Already, under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness, some graduates can have their loans forgiven if they work in public service for ten years. Few students use the current programs, however, because the rules dictating structure of repayment are relatively restrictive, as Inside Higher Ed recently reported.
The Clarke bill would lower the public service requirement to five years. Similarly, medical graduates would be rewarded for working in underserved communities by reducing the service requirement to 5 years from its current 10 years.
While this bill would benefit the small proportion of students who have extremely high debt levels, it would enormously distort incentives for students and universities -- causing larger problems in the long run.
The problem is that loan repayments will be the same whether students borrow cautiously to attend a state school or borrow extravagantly to attend an exclusive private university. Their payments will be capped at 10 percent of discretionary income for ten years. Because future students will know about the option of loan forgiveness, it will destroy any incentive for them to borrow prudently. They will have no reason to consider the varying costs of higher education.
Their unfettered willingness to borrow will have a ripple effect. Because the federal government will ante up (until it runs out of money), more and more money will flow to the schools through these loans, spurring them to continue to raise tuition and minimizing pressure on cutting costs. (Greater demand typically leads to higher prices.) Students would be simply middlemen -- passing government largesse on to colleges and universities that can’t stop their habit of seeking revenue wherever possible.
Limited bankruptcy protections would send a better message to both graduates and lenders. In 2005, Congress prohibited private student debt from being discharged through bankruptcy, except in rare cases. Government student loans have not been subject to bankruptcy protection since 1976, when Congress exempted them following reports that new doctors and lawyers were filing for bankruptcy to avoid paying student loans.
Indeed, if bankruptcy were available, many young graduates -- who often have no major assets such as a house or a car -- would be tempted to walk away from loan obligations. The federal government lends money to any student who meets minimum standards; it does not evaluate whether the student is likely to pay the money back.
Thus, restrictions are needed to make bankruptcy “work.” First, there should be a waiting period before students become eligible for bankruptcy protection -- perhaps five years after beginning to make payments on student loans.
Second, only loans from private lenders would be dischargeable through bankruptcy. The famous cases of student debt in the $100,000-plus realm tend to include large amounts of private loans. Lenders were able to rely on federal laws preventing bankruptcy -- so the sky was the limit. Federal loans, on the other hand, are capped at $31,000 for dependent undergraduates and $57,500 for independent undergraduates.
By making private loans dischargeable in bankruptcy, there would also be a ripple effect -- a good one. Lenders would become much more cautious. They would actually consider the likelihood that the student would be able to pay back the loan. Instead of relying on government policy to guarantee their profits, banks would have to return to time-tested, responsible banking practices. In the end, fewer students would take private loans and total debt would decrease.
Current student loan policy has led young people down the wrong path -- away from frugality and prudence to profligacy. It’s time to start sending better signals.
Jenna Ashley Robinson is director of outreach for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, N.C.
Giving students and parents targeted information about colleges' pricing and outcomes is a worthy goal that could improve their decision-making about higher education, the Center for American Progress says in a report released today. But the federal government's process for developing its "College Scorecard" has fallen well short in practice, says the report, which offers a slew of recommendations for how the government could rework the document, particularly with advice from actual consumers. Among the report's findings are that the government should: test ways of communicating the concept of “net price”; emphasize four-year graduation rates, not six-year rates, if further testing confirms that the shorter time-frame is more relevant to students’ decision-making; and develop alternative measures of student debt that matter to students if further testing confirms that traditional measures such as repayment rate or default rate are not meaningful to students.
Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, on Monday called for community colleges -- many of which in his state already offer bachelor's degrees -- to do so for total student costs of $10,000, The Orlando Sentinel reported. Those community colleges with bachelor's programs generally cost more than that. Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, has championed the idea of the $10,000 degree and several such programs have launched in Texas. But close analysis of the programs suggests that students in other programs are subsidizing the $10,000 program students, and that the reforms have been more about pricing (for a small number) rather than college costs generally.
Florida officials have agreed to declare Florida Christian College's students eligible for a state student aid program, settling a lawsuit by the college, The News Service of Florida reported. The college "requires a Bible emphasis of all who earn a degree," and Florida officials had declared it too sectarian for its students to qualify for state aid. But the college argued that its programs have secular educational purposes, and that the state was discriminating against the college on the basis of its religious beliefs.
In a conference call with his major donors on Wednesday, Governor Mitt Romney attributed his presidential campaign loss in part to President Obama's "gifts" to various voting groups, including students, The New York Times reported. Romney cited the administration's positions on student loans and some provisions in the health care legislation. "With regards to the young people, for instance, a forgiveness of college loan interest, was a big gift," Romney said. "Free contraceptives were very big with young college-aged women. And then, finally, Obamacare also made a difference for them, because as you know, anybody now 26 years of age and younger was now going to be part of their parents’ plan, and that was a big gift to young people. They turned out in large numbers, a larger share in this election even than in 2008."
The California State University System is considering a series of fees that would be "incentives" for students to move to graduation in a timely way. Students would be required to pay extra for retaking courses, or those who have accumulated so many credits that they could have graduated. But The Los Angeles Times reported that student groups say that the plan is flawed, and incorrectly assumes that students aren't working as hard as they can to finish their degrees. A survey released by a student group says that the proposed fees are likely to force students to borrow more, not help them graduate on time.
Week after week. From foes. From friends. “When are you going to write a book?”
From true friends? “Your book should have been on the shelves a year ago. You won’t have any impact unless you’ve written a book.”
I lead with the lamest excuse of all.
“And exactly when will I write this book?” The slides begin in my mind of all the people busier than I am who have written books. My slides put all these authors in earnest conversation with Charlie Rose, Faith Middleton, Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert.
“And exactly when?” O.K., next excuse: “The bread is in.” That’s a text message that arrives most weekday mornings.
“The Bread Guy” is my nickname at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, where we will soon have our seventh food bank in as many months. To clarify “food bank”: the Greater Boston Food Bank unloads an 18-wheeler of frozen chicken, pork, bags of carrots, bread, and yogurt and whatever else at the back of the building. At first, an 18-wheeler's worth of food vanished in 90 minutes. The fourth was after summer classes ended and before fall classes had begun. We wondered if students would show. They did. At the sixth, last week, the food was gone in 60 minutes. These hungry, remember, are human beings taking calculus, computer science, biology, nursing.
The bread? Oh, yes. Here’s an e-mail from the other day.
I am a current BHCC student who is going through a rough time financially. My friends and I look forward to seeing the "bread guy" carting around the school with free bread and pastries. For some of us, it is the only thing that we get to eat that day. For others, it helps us save what we would have spent on food so that we can buy a T pass to get to and from school.
The food bank and the bread arrived after my March column here that I had thought was about using federal work-study funds to pay students to study -- so they’d have money for food. Instead, the column broke the news of hunger on college campuses. "Here and Now," on NPR, picked up the story (Professor Suggests Paying Students To Study). That brought an e-mail from the parents’ association of Minuteman High School in Concord. Could they deliver every day four to six cases of day-old bread from Panera? “Of course. Thank you.” Each morning, I or a colleague load the bread onto a three-tier steel cart that clangs and rattles as we roll the bread to the Single Stop office, where a colleague has peanut butter and jelly, too.
Historical Aside/You Can’t Make This Up: That’s “Minuteman” as in Lexington and Concord. Remember in the Longfellow poem, Paul Revere on the 18th of April in ’75, “Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar silently rowed to the Charlestown shore.” That spot on the Charlestown shore is just a few blocks from BHCC. The Minuteparents, then, are bringing the bread to Charlestown along pretty much the same roads as Revere rode in the other direction in ‘75. Surely the patriot silversmith had higher hopes for our nation than food banks in mind when he spurred his horse and looked over his left shoulder to where BHCC now stands.
My Goddamned Book? Next excuse?
Here’s a showstopper. Wars. My colleagues and I are always working with two students out of money because of wars. The family of one is in hiding in the civil war in Mali. Car bombs in Damascus have shut the banks of another student’s family. A refugee from the civil war a few years back in Kenya last year earned a few dollars over the Pell Grant limit. No more financial aid. He can’t come back to school.
Every day faculty and staff all over our campus are helping the 500 U.S. veterans back from deployment in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, often, both. With the understaffed federal Department of Veterans Affairs, payments due to these men and women are late all the time. The veterans are, then, at the food banks, too.
Foes? How better to slow my nettlesome columns and convey me to oblivion than a year or two writing and (the real joke) trying to sell a book about the ease of educating the poor. My foes have the point that haunts me. Who cares, beyond my colleagues, the food banks and the Minuteparents, that these students have no food?
Who cares? The presidents of both my union, the National Education Association, and my lobby, the American Association of Community Colleges, blew off my suggestion to share with memberships the versions of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear American Singing” that The Nation published this fall. Click here for the poems. I had suggested that teachers and professors everywhere Steal This Assignment and have students flood the White House with the results. Not as literature but evidence that these millions of students have talent and motivation that’s worth lunch and a little help.
My Goddamned Book? Five years ago, I embedded myself at Bunker Hill Community College to find out who these students –- the millions failing to complete college –- are. What can they do? What would it take for them to succeed?
I’d had it with conferences on college access –- white tablecloths, sweating pitchers of ice water, pads and pens my students didn’t have. Speaker after speaker repeating demographics. And the excuses. And the excuses. And at lunch, platters upon platters of free sandwiches. Free drinks before dinner. I found, then and now, no evidence to counter my surmise that T-Mobile and Red Bull know more about these students’ lives than anyone on the higher education research/foundation/conference circuit.
My Goddamned Book would report my finding:
We, the people, can put at least a million, maybe two million, students on the path to a solid 21st-century career with funds already available in the federal budget. No new taxes.
My obstacles are that my blessedly simple, practical, finance-able ideas must be wrong. Otherwise, someone other than me would already have thought them up. Let me summarize. (This is only a column. You are going to have to buy the book.) Provide food. Give students a quiet place to study. Start with critical skills.
To increase degree, associate, bachelor’s, or certificate completion by at least a leap and a bound:
Right now, begin a pilot program that used already-budgeted federal work-study money to pay students to study. Click here for details. Wages to put food on the table will always trump giving up pay to study and attend class.
For Pell-eligible college students, provide the same federal free and reduced lunches these students received in k-12. Right now, we, the people, penalize students for continuing postsecondary education by taking away lunch. To fund this we can either cap federal direct-cost reimbursement for research grants (most now at least 50 percent) at 15 percent -- or just give me a few minutes with the Pentagon budget.
Require students receiving federal student aid to apply those funds first to being able to pass the Advanced Placement Exams in statistics and in English composition. Click here for details. (No, we, the people, will not pay current prices to the College Board.) Stop complaining about low U.S. math scores. Do something.
Evidence of students worthy of this investment? Again, click here and read the poems The Nation published.
My target populations are those now in community colleges. Not every single student. Two out of 20 in every section I’ve taught so far have the intellect to follow any rigorous course of study, from a Cisco systems license to admission at a selective college. Ten percent, then, of eight million students in community college is 800,000. To the many who will call my estimate folly, I’ll adjust by 75 percent. Call it 250,000 students. I’ll settle for a 10,000-student clinical trial/pilot, the rigor of which education has never seen before.
These are the students worth the public investment now. Our lack of an answer for the other 7,750,000 million students is no excuse for failing to educate, to the max, the 250,000 I will delineate in My Goddamned Book.
Yes, stories sell books. My Goddamned Book will move aside what too often passes for education reform –- the hero teacher and hero student tales. Jaime Escalante, “Stand and Deliver,” and Erin Gruwell, “Freedom Writers,” inspire me every day. Their work is evidence that these students are worth an investment. Recommending these movies to a friend is not what My Goddamned Book will propose.
My Goddamned Book will examine the shabby state of data with which to do real research in education. My Goddamned Book, and perhaps a column soon, will illuminate how education wonks and leaders over the past few decades have mastered (and doctored, I guess) excuses while medical doctors and scientists have found cures and treatments for many cancers.
Exactly when will I write My Goddamned Book? When the BHCC student who gave this stunning speech in Washington at the Opportunity Nation Summit has a funded plan for food for the balance of the semester. Click here and take a look.
My Goddamned Book will admit that I don’t think everyone needs college and that I have no idea how many more completions and graduations will energize the economy. My Goddamned Book will recognize that none of us has the slightest idea what would happen if a million more students per year, or even 1,000, could pass those two AP Exams. My Goddamned Book will propose that we, the people, give these simple ideas – food, quiet study time, high standards -- a try.
Is 250,000 still too big a clinical trial still? Is 10,000? O.K., how about the solutions I propose for 1,000 students at Bunker Hill Community College, starting Monday? I’ll bet my job on their success.