Got Debt?

I had a twisted thought this morning thinking about student debt and certain institutions that seem to be ineffective at student learning and more interested in feeding at the public trough than student success. Perhaps both. So, a bit of doggerel with apologies to Sir Mix-a-Lot.

“I like Big Debt, and I cannot lie
other presidents can’t deny
when a student walks in with itty bitty EFC
merit aid don’t cut it, unless she don’t need it.”

In part, I was thinking about Don Heller’s position on the student loan crisis in Valerie Strauss’ blog at the Washington Post and reactions to it on Twitter.

My first thought was of my post the other night about the Washington Post and its failure to disclose the fact that it’s publisher sits on the board of Graham Holdings. I kept reading and re-reading the piece trying to determine if this was honest reporting or if this an effort to cover the Post’s ass – pretend . I know Don and respect his work, so I was doubly curious.  Thus I was glad to see Sherman Dorn’s blog post this morning which does a nice job of explaining and rationalizing the issue.

One of the big problems is that in higher education there is a mantra “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  I suspect some really believe that $1.2T in student debt is a crisis, while others simply see it as an opportunity push for greater taxpayer support.

I’m not wild about student debt, I don’t know how much is too much, and as I have said before – Student debt is like pornography. I don’t know how much is too much, but I know it when I see it.

As Dorn and Heller rightly point out, the total amount of debt is the wrong focus for determining the existence of a crisis. Unless one believes no student should have any debt. The problem with that position is that it requires that higher education pretty is always paid for by someone other than the student. After all, it is a very rare student indeed that can afford to purchase higher education outright. Eventually though, this is a problem we have to wrestle with – who pays for college and how much.

I think the one thing that most people can agree upon is this – we should be working towards a system where family income at entry is not an effective predictor of student completion.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s SF classic Lucifer’s Hammer has a post-apocalyptic discussion that has stuck with me since I was a teenager. Just about the end of the book, as a society reforms following a massive comet strike, a discussion about what to do with prisoners of war takes place:

“What can we afford?” Senator Jellison asked. His voice was low, conserving energy. “Civilizations have the morality and ethics they can afford. Right now we don’t have much, so we can’t afford much. We can’t take care of own wounded, much less theirs, so all we can do is put them out of their misery. Now what can we do with our other prisoners? Maureen’s right, we can’t let ourselves become barbarians, but our abilities may not be up to our intentions.”

The thing is, there is really no question that we can afford to do the most ethical thing we can agree upon, up to, and including, free postsecondary education for everyone. We merely have to decide what other things we are going to stop paying for. I think most of us can make list, but there will be wide variance and disagreement from list to list.

Meanwhile, student borrowing and debt increases while we debate the existence of a crisis and how to respond. In five years, undergraduate debt of graduates increased almost 50% at the median. What will it look like in another five? Even if we can reach agreement on what to do this year, it will take a number of years to implement any significant change.

The crisis may not be here yet, but it is coming like a giant hammer.


One thought on “Got Debt?

  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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