Care about the Poor? Consider Consequences

On the day of the second presidential debate, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion at debate-host Hofstra University. The topic was “defusing the student loan debt bomb,” and I was the lone voice calling for an end to inflation-fueling federal student aid. My co-panelists were Tamara Draut of the think tank Demos, Above the Law blog co-editor Elie Mystal, and U.S. PIRG’s Ed Mierzwinski.

I had perhaps the best interaction with Mystal, with whom I had interesting chats throughout the day. Mystal’s response to my proposal was basically that poor and minority students need help, and phasing out federal aid would disproportionately hurt them. It was an argument with which I could sympathize, and it made more sense than just proclaiming “college education is a public good and should basically be free.” Unfortunately, writing on his blog post-debate, Mystal said that my “view makes a certain kind of sense” but nonetheless smacks of “the classic, Republican ‘f**k ‘em’ approach that disproportionately screws the poor and minorities.”

Um, ouch. Ascribing callousness or cruelty to either me or Republicans because we don’t like the negative effects of aid is, frankly, precisely why we can’t have a reasoned debate about these things. Maybe I’m an exceptionally gifted multi-tasker, or maybe I’ve just contemplated some important logic and facts, but I can be against mega-inflation without being indifferent to the poor. Indeed, quite the opposite.

First, much aid goes to people with little regard to their income. Pell Grants might be pretty well targeted – though they’re getting less so by the minute – but “unsubsidized” federal loans, which are backed by taxpayers, are available irrespective of need. Tax-based aid also skews high-income. The American Opportunity Tax Credit, for instance, can be claimed by joint filers making up to $180,000. And the well-to-do are best positioned to maximize their aid because they can afford financial planners to tell them how to hide wealth, or temporarily reduce income to optimize their eligibility. The cumulative effect of all this is to push up college prices.

Then there’s the psychological effect of hugely inflated sticker prices. If the message “college is astonishingly expensive” is repeated often enough, who do you think will more often be deterred from attending college, the rich or the poor? Probably the latter.

Next, the poor and minorities are no doubt disproportionately burdened by debt. Data indicate that’s definitely the case for African-Americans, and is likely the case for the poor considering that even debt loads that are small compared to some totals might be huge relative to a poor student’s wealth.

Finally, while people of all income levels and races spend too much time and treasure on higher education, the poor and minorities are probably the most snookered by “college for all.” The unfortunate reality is that those groups tend to be the least prepared to do college-level work or pay mammoth, inflated bills, and as a result tend to most readily pursue degrees without completing them. Among first-time, full-time students entering college in 2004, a weak 58.3 percent that didn’t transfer schools completed a four-year program within six years. Much worse, only 39.5 percent of African-Americans completed their degrees, and 50.1 percent of Hispanics. In large part this is the fault of factors preceding higher education – including our moribund K-12 system – but the dismal college completion reality remains.

In light of all this, is it really fair to proclaim that those who want to phase out inflationary, consumption-driving aid don’t care about the poor and minorities? Or is it long past time to give them a full and fair hearing?

Cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com