Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Opinion

Student debt isn't the problem. Colleges are.

If you borrowed money from the federal government to finance your education and you're having an extremely hard time paying it back, I have good news for you. President Barack Obama has just signed an executive order that expands eligibility for Pay As You Earn, a newish program that caps the monthly debt payments of eligible borrowers to no more than 10 percent of their monthly income. And if you still have outstanding debt after 20 years, or 10 years if you work in the public sector or for a nonprofit, it will be forgiven, like a youthful transgression.

Remember when you thought taking on this student loan debt made sense because getting a college education meant that you'd eventually earn enough to pay it off? Those were the days.

Cutting debt payments for cash-strapped borrowers is a nice gesture. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama fared well with under-30 voters, and Pay As You Earn will give some of them a nice little boost, just in time for the midterm congressional elections. But there is a much larger problem that the president's feel-good proposal fails to address, which is the fact that people who take on federal student loan debt aren't earning enough to pay it back. America's higher education institutions aren't offering value for money. It would be far easier for borrowers to repay their student loan debt if they weren't unemployed or underemployed, and it would be easier still if they were employed in jobs that offered robust wage gains over time. Yet the debt crisis also reflects the corruption of mass higher education in America.

Federal student aid subsidizes attendance at any accredited college at virtually any price. The result is that students have no way of knowing which colleges offer the best bang for the buck, and colleges have little incentive to get better at actually serving their students.

Consider the findings of "Paying for the Party," a masterful account of the many ways life at a large Midwestern flagship public university is rigged against students from working — and lower-middle-class backgrounds. Over the course of five years, the sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton tracked a group of female students at "Midwest University," a thinly disguised big public flagship school. One of their most striking findings is that standard college advising consistently failed to meet the needs of students from modest backgrounds. Students from affluent backgrounds turned degrees in "party majors" like sports communication and broadcasting or interior decorating into jobs in glamorous-sounding fields. Students who didn't have parents familiar with the ins and outs found themselves at the mercy of incompetent, indifferent and overworked advisers who routinely led them astray.

Many of the students profiled by Armstrong and Hamilton thus wasted precious dollars, and precious years, taking courses that ultimately proved useless.

So what can we do to address the ways higher education is failing young Americans? A good first step: Punish colleges that have failed their students; if a student defaults on her student loans, the higher education institution she attended should pay a penalty. This would make colleges think twice about their lackluster advising. Colleges would suddenly have an excellent reason to guide students to majors that would help them gain marketable skills.

We'd do well to rethink higher education from the ground up. Thinkers often talk up the importance of breaking down the barriers to entry in higher education — of making it easier for new higher education institutions better-suited to the needs of today's students to get up and running, and to compete with existing colleges that are failing to offer value for money.

Anya Kamenetz emphasizes institutional reforms that would also lower the cost of high-quality instruction. Among other things, she envisions "cohort colleges" that offer students who need the most help intensive advising and instruction designed to help them meet their educational goals and short-term pop-up schools that would meet the lifelong learning needs of working students looking to learn specialized skills. Flagship schools, meanwhile, would be transformed from elitist bastions that take pride in their exclusivity to educational innovation hubs, where resources would be devoted not just to teaching students lucky enough to be on campus full time, but also commuters educated at satellite campuses throughout the state.

It is egregious that students, parents, and taxpayers are the ones who suffer when colleges don't do their jobs while the colleges in question are left untouched. We simply can't let them get away with it anymore.

Comments
Column: Republicans gutted the mortgage interest deduction. Democrats should finish it off.

Column: Republicans gutted the mortgage interest deduction. Democrats should finish it off.

One of the most remarkable things about the tax bill Republicans passed last year was how it took a rotary saw to the mortgage interest deduction. The benefit for homeowners was once considered a politically untouchable upper-middle-class entitlement...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Editorial: As USFSP consolidation task force meets, openness and collaboration are key

Editorial: As USFSP consolidation task force meets, openness and collaboration are key

Writing a new law that phases out separate accreditation for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and folds it back into the major research university was the easy part. The hard work starts today when a new consolidation task force holds i...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Romano: Forget the sewers, St. Pete has a crisis of trust

Romano: Forget the sewers, St. Pete has a crisis of trust

Imagine what kind of spin the world might have endured had St. Petersburg sewer officials been asked to explain the final Hindenburg flight. • The landing, city leaders acknowledged, was bumpy. • Some passengers chose to disembark befor...
Published: 04/23/18

Correction

CorrectionCircuit Judge John Stargel of Lakeland is a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission who voted against a proposed amendment that would have stopped write-in candidates from closing primary elections. An editorial Saturday inco...
Published: 04/23/18

Leonhardt: A time for big economic ideas

The headlines may talk about growth, but we are living in a dark economic era. For most families, income and wealth have stagnated in recent decades, barely keeping pace with inflation. Nearly all the bounty of the economy’s growth has flowed to the ...
Published: 04/23/18
PolitiFact Florida: Does Gov. Rick Scott want to privatize Social Security?

PolitiFact Florida: Does Gov. Rick Scott want to privatize Social Security?

The president of a PAC that works to protect Social Security says Florida Gov. Rick Scott doesn’t have the backs of senior citizens.Jon "Bowzer" Bauman, the president of the Social Security Works PAC (and a former member of the band Sha Na Na), blast...
Published: 04/23/18
Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Not too many people took then-candidate Donald Trump seriously when he famously campaigned to "drain the swamp" as president. But that shouldn’t give this administration a free pass to excuse the behavior of Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Env...
Published: 04/22/18
Updated: 04/23/18
Perspective: The Heartland to Headwaters Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition finds frustration and fear seeking a safe path for wildlife across Interstate 4

Perspective: The Heartland to Headwaters Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition finds frustration and fear seeking a safe path for wildlife across Interstate 4

The original Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition in 2012 was inspired by how the Florida black bear roamed — and the space it needed to do so successfully. In 2010, expedition team member Joe Guthrie conducted research through the University of Kent...
Published: 04/22/18
Romano: Okay, now who sounds like a hysterical teen talking about guns?

Romano: Okay, now who sounds like a hysterical teen talking about guns?

The writer of the letter sounds hysterical. Perhaps a little desperate. And maybe that’s just who Marion Hammer is these days.Most of the world knows her as the take-no-prisoners maven of the National Rifle Association who directs Florida politicians...
Published: 04/21/18
Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Allegiant Air’s safety record remains troubling, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s reluctance to talk about it is no more encouraging. Those are the key takeaways from a 60 Minutes report on the low-cost carrier’s high rate of mid-flight brea...
Published: 04/21/18