Obscenity and Student Borrowing

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis added.]

—Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_know_it_when_I_see_it

As I said in my last entry, I don’t know what the right amount of student borrowing is, but I do know too much when I see it.

The problem with even thinking about what the “right amount” of student debt is that it is going to go up. And keep going up. American colleges and universities do not seem to have found the magic formula constrain the growth of in the total cost of attendance. Institutions have made progress in some areas, but they remain basically expensive, and the rise in part-time adjunct faculty as a cost control measure is probably not serving us well. It was once explained to me very slowly by a member of the Governor’s Cabinet, “But Tod, college costs are always going to go up.” 

I don’t feel compelled to believe that, but I do see the evidence  each year. This also includes evidence that not all cost increases are within institutional control. If not annually, at least on a semi-regular basis, well-intentioned laws are passed that increase the cost of doing the business of higher education. State legislators attempt to solve the problems of constituents through bills to address admission policies, transfer policies, access, affordability, efficiency, effectiveness, economic impact, K-12 involvement and improvement, campus safety, student health, student mental health, and the list goes on. To be fair, institutions bring a lot of this on this on themselves with policies or behaviors that create a news story that upsets people. Sometimes these events are really valid drivers of change, other times they are just the embarrassing reflection of what happens with human-run enterprises. They are called mistakes and they happen. Get over it.

I continue to be amazed at how college presidents continue think that big bills to change the institutional relationship to the state will work out in their favor. More and more they lead to greater intrusion of measurement, control, and direction. Good advice has always been, “Don’t poke the sleeping bear.” Better advice is, “Don’t push a big bill about yourself that hundreds of other people can involve themselves, many of which will do so without your knowledge.” Laws to affect institutional behavior rarely seem to reduce costs. Perhaps never.

Yesterday, Secretary Duncan defended the proposed rating system to congress. He and others continue to maintain this a way to improve and maintain affordability. Here’s a suggestion: quit pushing proposals that require institutional staff and leadership to respond. Quit doing things that require institutions to have federal lobbyists and pay membership dues to lobbying organizations. Just set clear and defensible standards for Title IV participation. The proposed Gainful Employment rules do that, although a lot of lobbying and institutional engagement has been in play there, as documented by David Halperin’s fascinating new book.

Returning to the today’s theme: obscenity is material where the “dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest”, and that the “average person, applying contemporary community standards” would disapprove.”  I think we have reached that point with student debt. Or, at least, based on the way student debt is being reported based on horror stories and loose rhetoric. The Vox Cards on student debt by Libby Nelson provide a nice overview on the topic, but I think perhaps they indicate that the discussion on student debt has reached the level of prurient interest – it seems to be as hot a topic as sex.  

Unfortunately, I don’t think we have quite reached the point where we know what the community standards are…let alone what they should be. If the average debt for 70% of bachelor degree graduates is $29,400, is that too much, too little, or just right? Or is the concept of community standards more important than we realize here? Should the average debt in Virginia be higher than the average in Mississippi but lower than that of New York?

What is the right amount of debt?

It is a good question, but it is the wrong one.

The right question is this. “Who are the parties responsible for paying for postsecondary education and making it accessible to all Americans, and what level of responsibility does each party have?” It seems to me that it has been too long since we have had this conversation, if we ever did.

  • What is the role of the federal government?
  • What is the role of the state?
  • What is the role of the family?
  • What is the role of the student?

Until we answer these questions, and agree to live the by the answers, I don’t think we can do any more than limp along and let the debt increase. That’s the real obscenity.


One thought on “Obscenity and Student Borrowing

  1. Pingback: A Festivus miracle, and associated grievances to be aired | random data from a tumored head

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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