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.
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.
The Chronicle of Higher Education website this morning had a feature article titled “The $6 Solution,” which focuses on a college access issue known as “undermatching.” Undermatching is the notion that some high-achieving students, usually those from low-income families, enroll in colleges that are less-selective in admissions and below their potential skill level. The reason undermatching matters, according to those who are researching the phenomenon, is because attending less-selective colleges generally lowers the odds that a low-income student will complete a college degree.
Even before this article in the Chronicle, undermatching had received quite a bit of publicity. A front-page article on the phenomenon in The New York Times last March was followed by a piece in the Sunday Review section of the same paper a couple of weeks later. In January, President Obama held a White House Summit on college access, where undermatching was prominently featured (the photo above is from that summit).
Having taught educational policy throughout most of my career as a faculty member, I would often start the course with the old saying, “Policy is like sausage – you don’t want to see either being made.” Just as most of us would not like to watch the sausage making process, for fear that we would find out what gets ground up and put into it, many of us – even those who consider ourselves “policy wonks” – similarly wish we could close our eyes as we watch the policy making process. As I write, there is a good example of sausage-making going on at the Department of Education in Washington.
The Department, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as its leader, has been pushing for more rigorous assessment of teachers and the programs that train them. This is a goal that is understandable and laudable; there has been much attention paid lately to the issue of teacher quality and how school districts can determine which are the most effective teachers and which are the least. Mary Kennedy, a faculty member in our Teacher Education program, edited a recent book on the topic – Teacher Assessment and the Quest for Teacher Quality: A Handbook. You can also read a briefing on the topic written by our Teacher Education program a few years ago.