A lot of attention is currently being paid to the topic of student loan debt in the United States. Earlier this year, President Obama proposed to make community college free for all students, motivated at least in part by concerns over the growing volume of student loan debt in the nation. With the 2016 presidential campaign starting to gear up, there are already indications that student loans will be an important topic of debate.
I recently received in my email inbox a request to sign a petition to forgive all student loan debt in the country. The email did not come from some fringe group that was an offshoot of the Occupy movement that first started a few years ago and included as one of its platforms the elimination of all student loan debt. Rather, the email came from the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers’ union in the country, representing more than 1.6 million members, including many in public higher education. The AFT, in conjunction with other groups, is calling on President Obama and Congress to wipe out all of the existing $1.3 trillion in loan debt held by current and former college students in the nation.
At first glance, this may seem like a good idea. Much has been written about the growing volume of student loans and the impact it has had on students and former students. But much of what the media has written about is grossly exaggerated and focuses on outliers. The vast majority of students are borrowing more reasonable amounts, and while some students do struggle to pay back their loans, this is not a reason why all student loans should be forgiven and future student loans eliminated.
In the ideal world, colleges and universities, along with grants and scholarships, would be funded at a level that would not require students to borrow to attend college. But we don’t live in the ideal world. The fact is that states have been disinvesting in the public higher education system over the last dozen years when measured in constant dollars on a per-student basis. The chart below is from the State Higher Education Finance Report for fiscal year 2014, compiled by the State Higher Education Executive Officers association.
In FY 2014, per-student state appropriations for higher education were 24 percent below the funding level in 1989. The result, also shown in the chart, is that net tuition revenue (the tuition received by public colleges and universities after grant aid is subtracted) has more than doubled during this period. Considering that three-quarters of all undergraduates are enrolled in public institutions, it’s not surprising that this increase in tuition prices has led to a large increase in student loan borrowing. This relationship between state funding and tuition costs has been well documented by a number of studies, including a recent one by the think tank Demos.
If you look closely at the chart, you’ll see a repeating pattern -- higher education appropriations hit a peak just about as a recession hits the nation, and then decline for a few years following:
Here I have overlaid in gray the durations of the three recessions, as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research, that have hit the country in the last 25 years. State expenditures tend to lag the onset of recessions, so following each recession, funding for higher education has been decreased for three to four years. As the economy improves, and state revenues increase, funding for higher education tends to rebound.
But there is another important pattern in this figure. Following the recession of 2001, state expenditures never returned to the high point of $8,964 per student before the next recession hit in late 2007. And it’s highly unlikely that as state budgets rebound from the most recent recession -- the Great Recession, as some have named it -- higher education funding will return to the 2001 peak.
Thus, students are going to continue to face increasing tuition costs and will continue to need student loans to help meet those costs. A call for forgiving all student loan debt would presumably also entail getting rid of, or strictly curtailing, future loans as well -- otherwise we’d find ourselves in exactly the same situation down the road. Eliminating student loans will not rein in increasing prices; tuition prices have continued to rise even as federal loan limits have not. In a report I wrote for the American Council on Education, I demonstrated that there is little, if any, empirical evidence for the Bennett Hypothesis, the argument that federal student loans lead to increased tuition prices.
Reasonable amounts of student loan borrowing are well worth the investment of attaining a college degree. Eliminating all student loans will only lead to restricting access to college for first-generation students and those from moderate-income families who need assistance in paying for their postsecondary education.
Donald E. Heller is dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University.
Inside Higher Ed's recent article on the growing chasm between wealthy institutions and “poorer” (in dollars) institutions begs us to answer this question: How should we deal with the reality that the 40 wealthiest institutions (the Elite 40) hold 66 percent of the higher education endowment wealth, receive 60 percent of private donations and have highest percentage of endowment growth in recent years among higher education institutions? Can we and should we live with this reality?
Regardless of one’s views of wealth distribution as a generalizable matter, the concentration of wealth in the Elite 40 is problematic for many within and outside government. I suspect that this concern is not because of a distaste, per se, for wealth and its benefits. Rather, it is the felt need to provide affordable quality education for the thousands upon thousands of vulnerable students currently and prospectively in the educational pipeline coupled with the current lack of resources at many of the institutions that have served and continue to serve these students.
In situations like this, I worry that current and future proposed solutions (whether public or private) will suffer from three defects: they will be overbroad, they can have dramatic unintended consequences and they will not lead to enabling educational opportunity for those most in need.
Take this example from the Inside Higher Ed article. One of cited colleges' presidents suggested that instead of redistributing wealth from the Elite 40 to others, we should redistribute students. This is, in essence, a call to address undermatching, an issue of keen interest to the Obama administration, among others. It sounds good; it sounds right. It appeals, at least on the surface, to our sense of fairness.
Would that the fix were that simple.
Even if elite institutions were to take more Pell students (say, double their current percentages), that alone will never address the growing chasm between the wealthy and the poorer (in dollars) institutions. Further, many vulnerable students would not succeed at or be a good fit for the Elite 40. Moreover, and perhaps of greatest significance as a reality check, given the growing percentage of vulnerable students in America, the Elite 40 cannot meet these needs, even if they so desired.
One Proffered Solution: Altered Taxation
So, we need to consider other solutions. There is a long history of using federal and state taxation to redistribute wealth.
Best to start with the most commonly proposed solution: taxing nonprofit institutions at the local, state and federal level. Unfortunately, this solution is at once overbroad and misguided.
Assuming the focus is on all nonprofits, such an approach would mean that churches, hospitals (many) and educational institutions could be subjected to property, income and capital gains taxes, as for-profit corporations are now. Such a solution would put many vulnerable institutions in jeopardy, as they would not have the capacity to meet these multilayered tax burdens. To be sure, one could determine that only some taxes paid by for-profits should be carried over to the nonprofit sector.
Putting nonprofits in financial jeopardy is unwise for many reasons. Nonprofit institutions truly contribute to their communities in meaningful ways and can be seen as having a positive economic impact, absent taxation. Some nonprofits actually pay local taxes on newly acquired property or renovations; others pay for water and sewerage. Others contribute space to the community or offer programs that benefit communities’ well-being -- like being a disaster relief site or immunization site in the event of a massive outbreak. They are often large employers in small communities, and they bring in revenue through visits and parental/family/friend stays. Just look at some of economic impact statements prepared by institutions.
Now, one could suggest a progressive tax solution where nonprofits with the largest endowments would pay the highest tax (federal and state) and then that rate would lower as endowment size diminished. Obviously, institutions could game the system (not unheard of in the world of tax); for example, instead of holding money in endowments, they could shift the monies to trusts or other nontaxable vehicles to avoid taxation.
Another tax approach would be to change the deductibility of donations (of individuals and organizations) to institutions with endowments of a certain size. For example, donations to endowments over $1 billion would be taxed at a predetermined rate. Alternatively, one could make this a regressive tax to encourage large gifts, where the deductibility would be greater than smaller gifts. This approach shifts the burden to donors, rather than receiving institutions and could reduce the level of giving to all institutions, an unfortunate outcome.
Some Out-of-the-Box Solutions
Instead of tax-based solutions, here are three other solutions worthy of consideration. They offer approaches that encourage giving, that retain revenue for the benefit of educational improvement and fit within the framework of how educational institutions currently function or could effectively function prospectively.
Before turning to them, a pragmatic note: for these approaches to succeed, the Elite 40 would need to see their obligations to other institutions and society more broadly. They would need to see that there is a price for wealth in terms of giving back to the larger community of students who want and need an education.
Idea One: For educational institutions with endowments over $1 billion (the threshold is a matter that could be adjusted), 5 percent of all dollars received as donations from private sources (whether individuals, corporations or foundations) would be placed into a national (or regional) designated fund designed to improve education across the pre-K-to-20 pipeline. (One could debate whether the right figure is 5 percent or 1 percent or 10 percent.) This fund could be managed by an existing or a to-be-created foundation. The Elite 40 (and those with endowments over $1 billion -- the Elite Plus) would be contributing to the same fund. How the fund operates, how it elects to distribute its interest and corpus can be determined.
In essence, this 5 percent “penalty” is akin to the penalty (often termed luxury tax) charged to professional athletic teams that have salaries over a mandated cap. Interestingly, the rationale is comparable in a sense: to create parity among competitive teams, salaries are capped so that the richest teams cannot accumulate all the talented players. Or, the fund could be analogized to the cy pres awards in class action lawsuits. These funds, made up of undistributed awards, must be given to nonprofits that will use the monies for a similar purpose. By way of example, a cy pres in a class action award against a credit card company could go to a nonprofit that engaged in financial literacy education.
Idea Two: The Elite Plus would be able to retain all donations received if they entered into meaningful partnerships with one or more colleges/universities that served at least 40 percent Pell-eligible students, 60 percent first-generation students or 50 percent minority students. (To be sure, these percentages can be re-evaluated.) The key here is meaningful partnerships, and how that would be assessed on an ongoing basis is a critical issue, as one wants to encourage compliance rather than gaming the system to further self-interest. The costs of these partnerships would be borne by the Elite Plus and would have to equal or exceed the dollar amounts identified in Idea One.
Examples would include reciprocal faculty swaps, payment to faculty from the Elite Plus or who are newly hired to teach at the partner institution; cross registration with the requisite transportation to/from the Elite Plus; shared or funded student support systems including tutoring, mentoring, psychological services, academic advising, career planning and graduate school preparation; creation of shared multicultural events and programming with joint participation from both campuses; and summer programming starting in the year between high school and college and each summer thereafter.
Viewed through a positive lens, these partnerships are not one-way transfers of dollars, knowledge and capacity. There are reciprocal benefits, creating a win-win rather than mandated largesse. Professors may learn from teaching students who are less privileged, and that learning can benefit their home institution. Research opportunities, mentoring and shared academic programming can be enriching. Consider a conference on homelessness or drug abuse or incarceration; might students who have had these experiences in sizable numbers enrich the understanding of these problems and their solutions?
Idea Three: The Elite Plus could create institutionally funded centers designed to study, reach out to and assist institutions serving vulnerable student populations (based on the criteria established in Idea Two). These centers would be funded from a percentage of the donations made (calculated as described above); their contributions would have to be tangible, producing scholarship, empirical research, conferences, engagement opportunities and the like.
A current example, although now funded through grants and donations from outside sources, would be the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. As its website reflects, the center is engaged in a host of research projects designed to improve the outcomes for students at minority-serving institutions, including HBCUs. It issues white papers and publishes books, holds conferences, and its grants usually include monies to be distributed to fiscally constrained minority-serving institutions to enable them to effectuate change effectively.
Conclusions: Process and Theory Concerns
It is easy to critique the solutions presented here.
Some of the challenges are what I would call design questions: What institutions fit within the Elite Plus? How would the various financial thresholds be determined and would they come with automatic inflators (or deflators)? How would the fund created in Idea One function and who would oversee it? What would be the structure of the partnerships and how would success be measured and collaboration ensured in Idea Two? How would the centers within the Elite Plus would be created and overseen in Idea Three?
But there is another set of questions about how we want to treat the Elite 40 and whether they have obligations to others and whether strategies to redistribute wealth are apt in this situation, recognizing that we redistribute wealth regularly in this nation through any number of means at both the state and federal levels. Fundamentally, these questions go to the core of how we want to function as a nation, what obligations we have to others and how we view charitable giving, education (particularly higher education) and wealth disparities.
Process questions matter, but until the deeper philosophical questions are addressed, progress will be limited. To that end, here are two guiding principles that, at least for me, justify the suggestions made here.
First, whatever the challenges, it seems wiser to have the solutions developed and vetted by those with a real stake in the outcomes -- public and private educational institutions, organizations that support educational and social reform, including think tanks from all sides of the proverbial aisle, and philanthropists. Solutions delivered from the states or federal government are less likely to meet everyone’s needs effectively.
Second, as a nation, we are only as strong as our weakest citizens. As such, we all benefit by lifting the bottom -- overtly. We create a greater likelihood that more and more individuals will contribute meaningfully to their families, their communities and our nation. Our economy will be better off if more and more individuals have access to postsecondary education and career opportunities.
Failure is expensive. Think about the costs of prisons and psychiatric treatment. Ponder the costs of the criminal justice system. We pay a price for poverty. Poverty impacts health, education and community safety, among other negative consequences. Social support systems, even minimal ones, are expensive. There is no question about that.
So, it seems wiser to pay for success, to pay to create pathways to and through postsecondary education. Rather than paying for the consequences of failure, let’s develop ways to fund success. Indeed, the promise of opportunity is the bedrock of this nation. We need to make good on that promise. The ideas suggested here start us on that pathway.
Karen Gross is a former president of Southern Vermont College and a former senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education.
A group of six Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday introduced legislation that would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated college students. Congress in 1994 banned the use of Pell Grants by prisoners in state and federal prisons. However, the U.S. Department of Education is expected to announce an limited waiver of the ban under the experimental sites program, sources have said. If that experiment is successful, it could help advocates make the case that Congress should drop the ban.
Representative Donna F. Edwards of Maryland led the group of Democrats in introducing the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act on Thursday. Several advocacy groups support it, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund.
Many experts on paying for college say it's essential to encourage families to start saving while their children are young. But Cuyahoga County, in Ohio, is moving to abandon a two-year-old program under which every kindergarten student received a $100 savings account, Northeast Ohio Media Group reported. Officials said too few families added to the accounts, so many felt the program wasn't working.
In San Francisco, where a similar program is based on a match of family contributions, CNN Money reported that low-income families have saved $1 million for college in the last four years.
Millions of students and families will now pay less to borrow money from the federal government to finance college in the coming academic year.
Interest rates on federal student loans are set to drop by more than one-third of a percentage point following the U.S. Treasury’s sale on Wednesday of 10-year notes. Rates are reset each year based on the yield of the note set by that auction.
The interest rate on new loans for undergraduate students will drop to 4.29 percent from the current 4.66 percent. The cost of new direct loans for graduate students will fall to 5.84 percent from 6.21 percent.
Rates on PLUS loans for graduate students or parents paying their children’s college costs will also tick down to 6.84 percent from 7.21 percent.
The new interest rates for the 2015-16 academic year take effect on July 1. The changes do not affect borrowers with older loans.
President Obama on Friday showered attention on community colleges and his plan for free community college. As graduation speaker at Lake Area Technical Institute, in South Dakota, he said he picked the institution to highlight its success in graduation rates and job placement rates, and related those statistics to the care of the faculty, quoting students about the support and guidance they receive. And President Obama plugged his proposal for free community college, arguing that Congress could easily endorse the concept and pay for it.
"If folks in Congress decided to make this a priority, we could do the next best thing and make community college free for an entire generation of young Americans, as long as they’re willing to work, keep their grades up, be responsible, graduate on time," President Obama said. "And we could pay for it by closing just one loophole for millionaires and billionaires. Just one. Just one tax loophole enjoyed almost entirely by very few at the top, we could offer a quality education to millions of middle-class Americans. It’s in everybody’s interest." The full text of the president's remarks may be found here.
Also on Friday, the White House released an email from the actor Tom Hanks, a community college graduate and already a supporter of the president's plan, describing how Chabot College changed his life, crediting specific faculty members and endorsing the free community college plan.
"I produced the HBO miniseries John Adams with an outline format I learned from a pipe-smoking historian, James Coovelis, whose lectures were riveting," wrote Hanks. "Mary Lou Fitzgerald's Studies in Shakespeare taught me how the five-act structures of Richard III, The Tempest and Othello focused their themes. In Herb Kennedy's Drama in Performance, I read plays like The Hot L Baltimore and Desire Under the Elms, then saw their productions. I got to see the plays he taught, through student rush tickets at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Those plays filled my head with expanded dreams…. Here's my bottom line, and it's simple: More kids (and adults, for that matter) should have this chance."