College is not free, and never will be. Someone is always paying -- taxpayers, private donors, students or some mix of the three. That obvious truth is missing from much of our political debate and the growing panic over student loans, which casts education debt as a tragedy rather than an investment. The hardening rhetoric against student loans threatens to undermine national success in broadening access to higher education, discouraging the very students we need.
This may sound strange coming from someone whose signature career achievement is a no-loans aid program. The whole idea behind the Carolina Covenant, which we launched at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2003, was to assuage growing worry about student debt by eliminating loans for our lowest-income students.
But if we’re going to put higher education within reach of the millions more who would benefit, loans are going to be a crucial part of the equation. And that means students from all backgrounds -- especially low-income, first-generation and minority students -- need to understand reasonable student debt as an opportunity, not a crushing burden.
Middle- and upper-income families already have that view, which is why they’ve been willing to shoulder modest loans to earn valuable degrees. The vast majority of the increase in aggregate debt over the past few years -- the much-decried $1.3 trillion in student debt -- has come from more Americans pursuing a degree, a public policy success we ought to be celebrating. Millions of Americans have correctly seen higher education as a bridge to a better future.
For low-income and first-generation students, that bridge too often looks like a trap. Even modest loans can be frightening for families that have no experience of college investment, so they’re less willing to take that step. Overblown angst about debt threatens to entrench this class divide in ways that will prove deeply destructive to American higher education.
The promise of a no-loans education is as much about communication as about financing. For our lowest-income students at Carolina, it was meant to overcome the impression of debt as a hardship and a barrier. Our own research showed that it wasn’t a hardship -- students taking out modest loans for a quality education are almost invariably better off. But the perception was so strong among historically disadvantaged families that a no-loans promise for those students made sense.
We’re fortunate to have the resources for such a program, but most colleges and universities don’t -- especially not the regional public universities and community colleges that serve a disproportionate share of first-generation and minority students. If we’re going to move the needle on college access in the United States -- and we must, given our shifting demographics and the economic stakes -- then families have to get comfortable with personal investment in education.
That was certainly the story for my family many years ago. Having grown up in a small Midwest farming community with no resources for college, I took out more than $6,000 to cover my undergraduate education -- a sum that exceeds $41,000 in today’s dollars. And then there was the follow-on debt for graduate and professional education. It was scary, but it was also a privilege to use someone else’s money to improve my life. And that, fundamentally, is what students are doing when they use student loans to pursue an education.
If a “no loans” sentiment takes hold among students and policy makers, it will undermine access to college and make stories like mine less likely. It would reverse the democratization of higher education, devastating community colleges and public universities that are already stretched thin in their effort to serve a diversifying student body.
We badly need a more focused conversation about the right balance of taxpayer money, donor support and other university funds that can offset the cost to students. But in any scenario I can envision, short of creating a true K-16 entitlement, student loans are going to remain a necessary part of the mix.
If we cut off opportunity capital in the name of protecting students or taxpayers, we will end up with less opportunity. The relatively few families who can afford it will continue to buy high-quality, immersive education for their children. And others -- no matter how talented, no matter how driven -- will be left with meager options.
That would be a tragedy, not an improvement. The lamentations of the antidebt crowd assume that policy makers will ride to the rescue with new funding, but it won’t happen. Money is not that plentiful any more -- not from the states, and not from the federal government, despite what some of the presidential campaigns have promised. The students who benefit from higher education are going to remain personally invested, and there’s nothing regrettable about that.
We should stop scaring families with misleading tales of ruinous debt, and stop heeding pundits who would prefer to make education a rarefied luxury. When it comes to opening doors for our most vulnerable students, responsible borrowing is a solution, not a problem.
Shirley Ort is associate provost and director of the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Republican Party's platform, which was released on the first day of the GOP convention in Cleveland, included criticism of the Obama administration's handling of sexual discrimination on college campuses as well as calls to decouple accreditation from federal financial aid and to bring the private sector back into the financing of student loans. The document also criticized the dominance of liberalism on college campuses and argued for the encouragement of new systems of learning to compete with traditional, four-year colleges.
The platform decried ideological bias in public higher education, saying state officials should "preserve our public colleges, universities and trade schools as places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance or 'safe zones,' as if college students need protection from the free exchange of ideas." It also condemned infringements on free speech and campus-based boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns against Israel.
On Title IX, which is the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded programs, the Republican document said the White House's alleged "distortion" and micromanagement of the way colleges deal with allegations of abuse "contravenes our country's legal traditions and must be halted before it further muddles this complex issue and prevents the proper authorities from investigating and prosecuting sexual assault effectively with due process."
Citing rising college pricing, the GOP said public policy should advance affordability, innovation and transparency in technical institutions, online universities, lifelong learning and work-based learning in the private sector, while recognizing that a "four-year degree from a brick-and-mortar institution is not the only path toward a prosperous and fulfilling career."
Likewise, the platform said accreditation should be decoupled from federal financing to encourage new modes of higher education delivery to enter the market, while states should be "empowered to allow a wide array of accrediting and credentialing bodies to operate."
The federal government should not be in the business of originating student loans, according to the document, reversing a change the Obama administration made. The restoration of private sector participation would help bring down college costs while giving students access to a multitude of financing options, according to the platform.
The Lumina Foundation last week released a new series of white papers on how public colleges are responding to performance-based funding policies in their states. The five papers by outside experts follow two previous batches the foundation funded and produced. The latest round focuses on how colleges can structure their academic programs and finances to support student success.
Lumina said the papers "focus on how institutions can align internal finances, student supports and incentives, and educational delivery to respond to funding formulas that create incentives for on-time degree completion and year-over-year increases in the numbers of students of color and at-risk students who earn degrees or other credentials."
A new report out of the Wisconsin Hope Lab finds that a large proportion of students eligible for Pell Grants are underfiling in states with explicit deadlines.
Because higher education funding at the state level is limited, most states use some form of a deadline as a way to ration need-based grant aid within budgetary limits. These states require students to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in the spring or summer prior to the funded year. One state, New York, aligns its deadline with the federal deadline of June 30 following the funded year.
"On average, state deadlines fall more than 400 days before the federal deadline and often do not align with institutional aid deadlines, creating communication challenges and increased complexity," says the report, which was co-authored by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Russell Cannon.
Overall, 45.6 percent of Pell-eligible students in states with explicit deadlines filed the FAFSA after deadline.
We usually think of college as providing a boost up the class ladder. That is what it did for a generation or more of Americans, particularly from the 1950s through the 1970s. But since around 1980, college has actually calcified class in America.
That’s one upshot of Tamara Draut’s new book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (Doubleday, 2016). She explains how the central divide between the working class and the middle class now is college. Not that things are entirely rosy for those with bachelor’s degrees, but those without degrees have experienced a more severe pinch, with proportionately shrinking wages, degraded conditions, few job protections and general insecurity.
Moreover, contrary to college standing as an open thoroughfare for Americans wanting to rise, it has become a gated toll road primarily available to those from middle-class and upper-class families. Those who have gone to college beget those who go to college: if your parents didn’t go to college, you are much more likely to work at or near minimum wage. Only about 9 percent of those from the lowest quartile of wealth complete college degrees, whereas about three-quarters from the top quartile do.
A key impediment has been the exponential rise of tuition prices since the 1970s, at several times the rate of inflation, correlated with the reduction of public support, which in turn has brought the steep increase in student debt and student work hours.
This has produced what Draut called in an earlier essay “The Growing College Gap,” in Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences. We usually think that we have seen great progress if not solved the problem of racial inequality, but the enrollment gap between white students and black students was about 5 percent in 1970, whereas it had more than doubled, to 11 percent, in 2000. Similarly, Hispanic students have seen the gap widen from 5 to 13 percent. Affirmative action gets headlines, but we have actually gone backward in attaining racial equality in higher education.
One of Draut’s key insights is that the class divide is not just a matter of money but also one of culture. As she remarks, “When once a steelworker and an accountant could live on the same block, drive the same car, vacation at the same place and eat at the same restaurants, over the course of the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s” those from higher classes have little substantive contact with those from the working class except when they ring up their groceries or take care of their elderly relatives.
That has precipitated a public and political blindness to the new working class, even though it constitutes 60 percent of Americans. Rather than a silent majority, it is an invisible majority.
The cultural divide has two daunting consequences. Because those who work in journalism and other news media come from the upper, college-degreed cohort -- as Draut adduces, in 1971 only about half of journalists had B.A.s, whereas 92 percent do now -- they have little direct sense of the working class. Nor is there a strong interest to represent it in the main news organs, like The New York Times or The Washington Post, whose audiences are largely college educated.
In Draut’s analysis, after the 2008 crash, about half of the news focused on the banks, a third on the federal response, a fifth on businesses and only a smattering on working-class people who might have lost jobs or their houses. Rather, the Post ran a feature on a banker getting by on a reduction of her salary -- to $300,000 a year. Hard times indeed.
Similarly, those who work as congressional staffers come almost entirely from college backgrounds. Of high-level staffers, about half “attended private colleges for their undergraduate degree, including 10 percent who went to an Ivy League school.” They are typically the ones who get the internships inside the D.C. beltway, as well as can afford to carry the expenses of internships.
That has effectively shut the working class out of public representation or political power, even though it constitutes a majority. For Draut, the key is to change the narrative, popping what she calls the “class bubble.” One corrective is simply that we are not all middle class: most Americans are working class.
In addition, Sleeping Giant shows that the present working class no longer fits the iconic image of the construction worker in hard hat who had a union to speak for him. Instead, it is largely female, about half Latino and African-American, usually nonunionized, and struggling to make ends meet at or near minimum wage while laboring in home health care, fast food and retail, which have gained the bulk of new jobs.
Since college is a key class marker, it’s easy to blame higher education itself as the problem. But for Draut the problem lies in the policies that have drained equal opportunity from it and segregated it, and in turn she advocates policies to enhance public higher education, notably reducing tuition fees and eliminating student debt. In this, she differs from the diagnosis of John Marsh, who argues in Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality(Monthly Review, 2011), that college has been overemphasized and offers a false solution, so we should pare back college attendance.
Draut herself was a working-class beneficiary of higher education: the daughter of a steelworker, she went to a public university near home in Ohio, which sent her on her way to a job in advertising, then with Planned Parenthood, and since 2001 with Demos, a progressive think tank, where she started as a researcher and is currently a vice president.
Demos was founded in the 1990s as a counterweight to the many conservative think tanks, and it has produced reports such as “The Great Cost Shift,” about the draining of public support for higher education, and “The College Compact,” about enhancing public support. Draut first worked on studies of credit-card and student loan debt, which spurred her earlier exposé, Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead (Doubleday, 2006).
She learned a lesson from the battle over credit cards. In seeking reform, as she recalled in an interview with me, “there’s a beltway mentality, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen; we’re never going to regulate the credit-card companies.’” But she proudly attended the 2009 signing of the Credit Card Act, which regulates rates and fees and has helped those in debt. As she quipped, “I got the last laugh on that one,” and she sees the same possibility for higher education: “Debt-free college is now a real idea and part of the political debate.”
That’s one salutary reminder we can take from Draut: it might be a long road, but good ideas that seem unrealistic at one moment can win their day. In academic scholarship, we typically focus on conceptual problems, commenting on one and moving onto the next, and in fact we are continually looking for what’s new or next. But in politics, change sometimes seems glacial, and one has to be dogged. It’s useful to keep in mind that massive student debt is only a recent development, arising since the 1980s, and 10 years ago, the idea of abolishing it or enacting free public higher education were considered pie-in-the-sky proposals. But they’re on the agenda now, and we have to keep working to accrue the data, build the narratives and devise policies that aim toward more equality.
Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University (Fordham University Press, 2014).
The U.S. House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday released a draft funding bill that would block implementation of federal gainful employment rules and would not back the U.S. Senate's attempt to restore year-round Pell Grant eligibility. The bill also includes $33.3 billion for the National Institutes of Health, which is $1.25 billion above this fiscal year's funding level.
The Obama administration's attempt to regulate vocational programs at colleges based on their graduates' labor-market standards went into effect last year. They apply to for-profit institutions and nondegree programs at community colleges and other nonprofit institutions. The draft House bill would prevent any of the proposed $162 billion for labor, health and human services from being used to "implement, administer or enforce" the final regulations.
Likewise, the bill does not include funding for year-round Pell, which would allow students to use the grants during summer sessions. Congress and the White House backed the elimination of that eligibility in 2011. The House proposal also would cut $1.3 billion from the Pell program, which has a roughly $7.8 billion surplus.
Consumer and higher education groups criticized the House bill, saying it would harm lower-income students. Some, however, also praised the proposed funding increase for biomedical research at the NIH.
"In addition to raiding Pell Grant funds, the draft House bill attempts again to block implementation of the commonsense gainful employment regulation designed to protect both students and taxpayers from career education programs that overcharge and underdeliver," said the Institute for College Access and Success, in a written statement.
The bill will be considered by a House subcommittee today.
On Wednesday 120 House Democrats sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee in which they opposed cuts to the Pell program.
"Rescissions, cancelations or funding level cuts will worsen the funding outlook for Pell Grants and make it harder to strengthen the program through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which Congress is expected to tackle in the coming months and years," they wrote. "Any current surplus balance reflects Congress’ intent and commitment to make college more affordable for millions of students through updating the Pell Grant program."
Temple makes a sudden change after $22 million in overspending on financial aid. But faculty members object to what they see as a lack of information and disrespect for an academic leader many respect.
A growing number of colleges have created student aid programs that direct small amounts of money, sometimes as little as $300, to students who are struggling to pay for tuition or a financial emergency. NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education on Wednesday released a study on emergency aid programs at 523 institutions from various sectors of higher education.
Common forms of such aid include emergency loans, campus vouchers, food pantries and completion scholarships, according to the report. Most of the emergency aid programs (82 percent) have been in place for at least three years. But colleges tend not to advertise emergency aid beyond word of mouth, according to NASPA, and the need for such programs outstrips available funds. The study included five suggestions for improving the administration and impact of emergency aid:
A common language to describe and discuss emergency aid
More policy guidance for administering emergency grants and loans
Standardized procedures to guide the development of new and existing programs
Improved data usage to identify students who need aid and to assess the effect of programs on student success