College Affordability Lamentations Don’t Measure Up

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has published another of its biennial Measuring Up reports, and once again the report itself doesn’t measure up. It has lots of problems, but the most glaring — and the one that regularly generates the most wailing and gnashing of teeth — is its insistence that only money students don’t have to pay back constitutes “financial aid,” and loans are the cruelest thing since Attila the Hun.

But student loans are hardly rapacious student victimizers. For one thing, federal student loans — meaning the vast majority of the nearly $86.7 billion in loans distributed in 2007-08 — have very low interest rates and generous terms. In addition, there are oodles of loan-forgiveness programs available. Most importantly, people go to college to vastly improve their earnings over a lifetime, and do so to the average tune of hundreds-of-thousands to perhaps even a million extra dollars. Yet for those students who leave college with debt — and roughly a third graduate debt-free — the average loan burden is only around $20,000. That’s a heck of a windfall profit, yet heavily subsidized loans apparently don’t count as useful aid!

Unfortunately, advocacy groups like NCPPHE are not alone in portraying students having to foot their own college costs as some sort of grave economic injustice. Just yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings gave herself and her boss’s administration a huge pat on the back for expanding taxpayer subsidization of student profiteering. Nonetheless, in Spellings’ opinion student debt remains an ugly stain on the country’s soul:

Today, the average college graduate is more than $20,000 in debt. That’s $20,000 farther away from buying a home and starting a family. And $20,000 less likely to give back through teaching or public service.

I’m going to address head-on the effects of student debt on potential teachers in an upcoming PA, but overall this woe-is-students whining is ridiculous and counterproductive. There is nothing unfair about students taking on debt for their own huge payoffs — especially in contrast to foisting the costs on the plumber, electrician, carpenter, or anyone else who hasn’t gone to college — not to mention that there is lots of reason to believe that aid just drives up costs. Unfortunately, there is no sign that either higher education advocates, or politicians looking to score points with students and parents, are going to stop their very public lamentations anytime soon.