Monday, February 29, 2016

No, Virginia, The Truth Does Not Always Lie in the Middle

This piece is testing my writerly mettle.  I usually try to be relatively thoughtful and restrained in my posts, saving polemic for rare and special occasions.  Too much bile makes public discourse toxic, so I use it sparingly.  I don’t equate civility with neutrality -- l have a point of view, and I don’t apologize for that -- but generally believe that to the extent that I have a contribution to make, it’s in a particular key.  Pitchforks and torches are not my preferred mode.

That said, Neal McCluskey’s piece on student loans is as offensive an argument as I’ve seen in major media in a long, long time.  

In a point/counterpoint with Sara Goldrick-Rab, McCluskey takes the position that student loans “end up hurting the students we are trying to help,” so we should be willing to place lending “in private hands.”  As he puts it, “Private lenders...would be using their own dollars, and so would have a powerful incentive to be honest with unprepared students, telling them ‘This loan does not make sense for me...or you.’”  By finally getting tough on the poor and badly prepared, we could save them from their clueless selves.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with the basics.  As a general rule, when someone in the Wall Street Journal suggests getting tough with the poor for their own good, it’s worth asking some questions.  

Why is student debt increasing?  Is it because students abruptly became much less capable around 2008?  That’s when debt loads exploded, and yet, McCluskey offers no evidence to suggest that academic ability suddenly nosedived then.  What did nosedive then was state and local appropriations for public higher education.  Most public colleges and universities reacted by splitting the difference between cost cuts -- RIFs and adjunctification -- and tuition increases.  The former imperils students’ chances of graduating, and the latter increases their debt loads.  As Goldrick-Rab correctly points out in her piece, addressing student loans without addressing state and local divestment is myopia, if not sophistry.

Why are former students having a hard time paying debt back?  Mostly because entry-level jobs don’t pay very well.  But McCluskey never addresses either the supply of entry-level jobs, or the minimum wage.  

Why do low-income students want to go to college?  For the same reasons everyone else does, though perhaps with more urgency.  They want to learn, and they want better jobs.  They want to improve their lives.  Denying them access to college “for their own good” must mean either that we’re quickly developing other ways to make a good living -- McCluskey is silent on that point -- or we don’t consider their aspirations important.  That’s a moral question, and that’s why I chose the word “offensive” rather than “incorrect.”  

We know that standardized tests and GPAs -- the criteria McCluskey mentions -- skew by race and income.  We know that students of color and low-income students will be disproportionately affected.  Discussing the issue in a vacuum, as if it did not occur in a specific context, is dishonest.  This is exclusion, and it would occur along racial lines.  To pretend otherwise is simply not credible.

Student loans aren’t really about loans.  They’re really about access to college.

If we’re serious about improving loan repayment rates -- a second-order good, but a good nonetheless -- then we need to look hard at improved operating appropriations for public colleges, a higher minimum wage, and a host of measures to improve entry-level hiring.  McCluskey’s piece is silent on all of these.  

Student loans are a second-best -- okay, third-best -- solution to college access, but they actually exist.  They allow students who couldn’t otherwise go to college to go to college.  If the proposal were to do away with student loans in favor of grants, I’d be all for it.  But the proposal is to do away with them in favor of tough-minded bankers who would crack down on the poor.  

Telling the poor that they’re too risky to bother educating is not what a civilized society would do.  A solution that involves having tough-minded bankers crack down on the poor sounds like a Dickensian caricature.  Replacing an imperfect solution with no solution at all is bad enough; claiming to do it “for their own good” is patently offensive.  

Community colleges deal in hope.  They offer opportunity.  They bet on longshots.  They provide second chances to “risky” students who blew it the first time.  That’s a feature, not a bug.  It’s a moral position, and a key social function.  Colleges could perform better, and those of us in the trenches are spending our waking hours trying to make that happen.  We welcome all allies.  But if your only message to the poor is that lifelong poverty is for their own good, I have nothing to say to you.