As I have written in the past, The New York Times has had a pattern of sensationalizing the status of student loan debt in the country through a series of articles that misrepresent the true status of borrowing. It is a mystery to me why the Times persists in doing so, as they have also published articles that more accurately show the true state of affairs. The most recent misrepresentation appeared last week in an article authored by Kevin Carey, a frequent critic of higher education in this country. Earlier this year I wrote a critique of Carey’s most recent book, The End of College.
In his Times article Carey tells the story of Liz Kelley, a 48-year-old woman who borrowed $26,278 to earn a bachelor’s degree in English in 1994, but whose student loan debt today totals $410,000 – yes, $410,000! As Carey points out, this is a sum of money Ms. Kelley is unlikely to be able to ever pay back given her current career as a teacher at a parochial school. Her total borrowing ballooned because of additional debt she took on for graduate programs (in law, which she didn’t complete, and then education), and the fact that she was infrequently, if at all, actively repaying her loans.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley recently declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president, challenging front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. Among his key proposals as a candidate are to offer students in public colleges and universities “debt-free college” and for states “to immediately freeze tuition rates.”
While these may sound like good ideas to address the rising price of college, what is concerning is that Governor O’Malley has evidently crafted these proposals based on his own experience with student loans. As The Washington Postrecently wrote,
The proposition is deeply personal for O’Malley: Aides say he and his wife have already incurred $339,200 in loans to put the two eldest of their four children through universities. . . “Right now, student loan debt is holding us back — student by student, family by family, and as a nation, we have to do better,” O’Malley said during an event at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
Grants and scholarships are critical for helping many students afford college. Data from the College Board show that the largest single grant program, the federal government’s Pell Grant program, awarded $33.7 billion to 9.2 million students in the 2013-14 academic year. Without the support of Pell Grants, millions of students across the country would not be able to enroll in college.
A limitation of Pell Grants for traditional students who are graduating from high school and contemplating attending college, like many other financial aid programs, is that most students do not find out about their eligibility for the grants until late in their senior year in high school. This is often too late for students to take the steps necessary to prepare themselves for college – including preparing academically, financially, and socially – to have an impact on their college going behavior.
As I have written in the past, a lot of attention is currently being paid to the topic of student loan debt in the United States (a couple of representative posts can be found here and here). 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. The email came from the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teacher union in the country, representing over 1.6 million members. 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.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the student at Duke University who reported she was paying for college by acting in pornographic movies. Her story received a lot of publicity, including much that decried the need for this woman to resort to a career in pornography to pay her tuition bills. As I asked at the time,
A telling story of the state of college affordability in the nation? Not at all. It is simply the story of the choices made by one young woman, and we should not attach any importance to what she has done.
This school year, a similar story is making the rounds, most prominently in an article in The Atlantic last fall, “How Sugar Daddies Are Financing College Education.” According to the story, a website called SeekingArrangement.com reports it has over 2 million women members (“Sugar Babies”) who join the site “where beautiful, successful people fuel mutually beneficial relationships” in order to meet “Sugar Daddies.” This might sound like any other dating website, albeit one for people who have a self-inflated image of themselves. But The Atlantic article alleges that this site differs from others in that the women there are looking to get paid for their relationship with the men on the site, or to put it more directly, they are offering escort or prostitution services. A follow-up article in The Atlantic this month highlights colleges and universities across the country that have a proportionally large number of women registered on the site. Other media have covered the phenomenon of sugar babies and sugar daddies as well.
In the last month, the Department of Education and President Obama have released two important proposals affecting higher education. The first, released by the department last month, was for the long-awaited college ratings plan that the president had first proposed 16 months earlier. This plan would evaluate over 6,000 colleges that participate in the government’s Title IV federal student aid grant and loan programs.
President Obama’s more recent policy idea was one he offered up January 9 in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he suggested that the first two years of community college be offered for free to all students in the country. Under the president’s plan, the costs would be covered through a federal-state partnership, where the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the tuition and participating states the remaining 25 percent.
One of my favorite phrases when teaching educational policy is “the devil is in the details” (I once wrote an article that used that phrase as the title – it’s chapter 2 of this report). Politicians and policymakers will often issue grand policy proposals that address issues from an altitude of 35,000 feet, and until the details of the new policy are fleshed out it is difficult to determine what the impact will be at ground level.
This is very much the case with President Obama’s announcement last week of a new set of proposals to address the issue of the rising price of college and how Americans pay for it. As I described in my post last week, the president articulated a series of proposals that are very broad in scope and for the most part will require Congressional action in order to implement them. Thus, it is difficult at this point to determine with any degree of certainty what impact the proposals will have on colleges, universities, and students, but I will do my best to analyze them from the information the White House has provided.
In my last post, I described the challenges in obtaining accurate and comprehensive data on the salaries earned by graduates of individual colleges around the nation. While there is much interest in using data on the earnings of college graduates as a means for ranking colleges, there is no single source of data on all colleges in the country (or even a majority of them) that allows us to compare institutions in this manner. Even if we did have accurate data, is the salary of recent graduates the primary criterion we should use in judging higher education institutions?