College Scholars, Mindless Borrowers?

A few days ago Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chairwoman of the House higher education subcommittee, had the audacity to say in a radio interview that she didn’t have a lot of sympathy for students who racked up $80,000 to $200,000 in college debt. Opportunists have leapt at the chance to attack her, branding her as either mean, or out of touch because what led to her discussion of college debt was retelling how she grew up poor and paid her way through school.

Now let’s be clear: Foxx wasn’t deriding bachelor’s grads holding average debt – about $25,000 for the two-thirds of students with debt – but people with big multiples of that. You know, the ones seemingly featured in every news story or congressional hearing dealing with higher education. And it is, often, very hard to sympathize with such people if you are able to track down crucial information about them such as what they’ve studied, where they’ve chosen to go to school, and what they spend their money on. This CBS News piece is a classic of the Woe-is-Huge-Student-Debtor genre, which Radley Balko and I took apart at the time of its airing.

There’s no question that the price of higher education has been rising at breathtaking rates, and profit-maximizing schools – and politicians who fuel the maximization – bear a good chunk of the blame. But is it really beyond the pale to suggest that maybe some students, who seem to accumulate debt without a care in the world until payment comes due, bear some responsibility for their predicament? Indeed, aren’t these supposed to be pretty smart people – you know, “college material” – who should at a minimum be capable of estimating costs, loan burdens, and potential earnings? Of course, but try bringing that up in the higher education cost debate. You’ll instantly become the Dean Wormer of the group, reviled for killing all the fun of poverty-crying students.

And here’s the thing: Giving the impression that students face an even greater burden than they do – which is exactly the effect of repeatedly focusing on fringe debtors – only encourages Washington politicians to pour even more money into student aid, letting schools raise prices even faster.

The vitriolic response to Rep. Foxx is exactly why so little progress is made in politics generally, and higher ed specifically. There are just some things you can’t talk about, no matter how important than may be, and if you dare bring them up you can expect anything but an honest discussion. You can  expect only cheap shots and smears.