The Cost of Education Is Crushing the Opportunity We Mean It to Provide
The Occupy Wall Street movement has no formal goals but several consistent memes have emerged among the crowd demonstrations in various cities across the country. Most of these have to do with the concentration of wealth and the collusion/corruption between big business and government. However, a more selfish trend also has surfaced among the demonstrators – many want their college student loans forgiven.
A small, informal survey among New York protestors last week by equity research analyst David Maris found ninety-three percent of them advocated student-loan clemency. This idea actually is neither original to OWS nor unique among its members.
|Sign bewailing large student loan debt|
from one Occupy Wall Street protestor
New York University Professor Andrew Ross recently proposed a radical solution to student loan debts the he calls “A Pledge of Refusal.” The idea requires those who owe to sign a pledge to stop making payments on their student loans once the pledge garners a million signatures. Meanwhile, an online petition supporting student loan forgiveness has collected over a half million signatures.
President Obama announced a plan last week to provide student loan relief. First, he is reducing the maximum repayment on student loans from fifteen percent of discretionary annual income to ten percent. Second, he will allow borrowers to combine loans from the Family Education Loan Program with direct government loans, with a lower consolidated interest rate. Obama plans to use his Executive authority to bypass Congress for this program.
Democratic Representative Hansen Clarke of Michigan wants to go even further. He has introduced legislation (H.R. 365) that includes creating incentives for banks to negotiate with distressed lenders, providing tax credits for education expenses and student loan debt, and making more private student loans eligible for discharge in bankruptcy proceedings.
Both Obama’s and Clarke’s solutions fall short of general clemency but protestors are unlikely to obtain this remedy. A Rasmussen poll found only twenty-one percent of American adults in favor of blanket forgiveness as contrasted to sixty-six percent opposed. Many feel clemency would be unfair to lenders as well as those borrowers who repaid their student loans. At worst, they write off OWS protestors and other advocates for loan forgiveness as spoiled, lazy slackers who expect a free ride.
Such epithets are unfair, counters conservative columnist Nicholas Kristoff this week in the New York Times. “While alarmists seem to think that the movement is a ‘mob’ trying to overthrow capitalism, one can make a case that, on the contrary, it highlights the need to restore basic capitalist principles like accountability.” Kristoff goes on to deplore how “some financiers have chosen to live in a government-backed featherbed. Their platform seems to be socialism for tycoons and capitalism for the rest of us . . . they can privatize profits while socializing risk.”
Representative Clarke concurs that most protestors “are not asking for [a bailout]. They are simply asking for a system that is not rigged against them.” When big bankers and investment firms can make poor decisions without suffering obvious consequences, then the motivation for individuals requesting similar absolution may not be admirable but it is understandable.
While the current crop of students and recent graduates may be whining about the problem more than past generations, they face an objectively bigger problem. This year, the average borrower graduating from a four-year college left school with roughly $24,000 of student debt, with ten percent facing debt of $40,000 or more, according to the College Board. Total student loan debt will exceed $1 trillion this year and it now exceeds outstanding credit card debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Only seven percent of graduating bachelor’s degree holders come from the bottom quarter of income earners, as compared to twelve percent back in 1970. Intended as relief and opportunity for the distressed poor, student loans have become an unavoidable middle class reality. In addition, a series of laws passed by Congress last decade have increased the difficulty of discharging debt, including student loans, through bankruptcy.
The website College Scholarships reports on several programs that forgive or reduce student loan debt for graduates willing to work in high need/disadvantaged areas. The problem is such programs are limited to highly targeted professions, such as nurses, attorneys, and teachers. What is more, they often require a minimum of five years experience. Traditionally, graduates take such jobs immediately after graduation to acquire experience, when they are most inclined to social activism and less acclimated in their lifestyles to larger salaries.
I attended college for six years, ultimately earning a master’s level degree in 1984. I won several scholarships, based on merit; qualified for several grants, based on need; and I worked. In spite of this, I fell short of the necessary money for tuition and books on a couple of occasions. I took out a couple of federal student loans to make up the difference that I was able to repay within a few years of graduation.
Contrast my experience with that of Robert Applebaum, who graduated from Fordham Law School in 1998 with about $65,000 in debt. After going to work as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, his salary forced him to put his student loans in “forbearance,” which prevents default but allows continued accrual of interest. Applebaum began repaying his loans upon leaving the DA’s office in 2004 but remains $88,000 in debt today.
Tommaso Boggia is an MPA candidate at Presidio Graduate School and an advocate for student loan clemency. He writes at the website Triple Pundit, “Regardless of work ethic, more and more middle class families are slipping into poverty, in part because of the heavy debt burden of house ownership and of pursuing a higher education degree . . . A whole generation is seeing their plans and ambitions shackled by the extra weight of their student loan payments. These young people are unable to buy a home, start a family, or do the socially important but underpaid jobs in the social services sector.”
In the post-World War II era, a college education was the chief means by which children from working poor families could leapfrog into the middle class or even affluence. Increasingly, however, the cost of this requirement is becoming the very thing holding them back from the opportunities promised by the American Dream.
The most cited reason for exploding debt is the ever-increasing cost of college. Average in-state tuition and fees at four-year public colleges rose an additional eight point three percent in 2001 alone, passing $8,000/year ($17,000/year with room and board). In addition, the American Council on Education notes that budget cuts and other austerity measures have reduced state appropriations to higher education by eighteen percent over the last three years.
Richard Vedder, Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and author of the book Going Broke by Degree – Why College Costs Too Much, maintains that we are looking at the problem exactly backwards. Writing in the National Review, he argues that just as an abundance of easily obtainable, low interest mortgages spurred the housing bubble that caused the 2008 financial crisis, “Arguably, federal student financial assistance is creating a second bubble in higher education.”
Vedder also points out that government doles out loans without discrimination to a student’s prospects of success in college, despite the fact that over forty percent of those pursuing a bachelor’s degree fail to receive one within six years, or chances of success after college, regardless of whether a student’s field of study offers poor versus good job/career availability. During a 2011 PBS NewsHour appearance, Vedder argued American society must “open up opportunities for people to consider a variety of different options after high school, one of which is college, but there are many others.”
Most of us may not agree with those advocating total clemency for student loan debt. While this solution may be overly simplistic and impractical, it seems clear that some reforms are necessary – whether the efficiencies proposed by Obama, the incentives proposed by Clarke, or Vedder’s more draconian measures toward higher education in general. It also means we need to give OWS protestors and other loan forgiveness advocates more credit for identifying a real, substantive, and systemic problem beyond their selfish interests.
If we value an education for our children as much as we claim, our society has to find a way to re-engineer it back from the crushing burden it has become to more of the opportunity we aspire it to be. Right now, the main thing we are teaching our kids is learning to owe. This is neither opportunity nor American exceptionalism.