Good Question: What to Do Before Major Change

“Dean Dad” Matt Reed has responded to my rebuttal to him Tuesday, and I appreciate his engaging me in discussion. His main point now: The student loan default problem is not mainly about big total debts, but smaller debts that are hard to pay off because the students dropped out before getting a degree.

I agree. Indeed, that was pretty much the point of my Wall Street Journal article that kicked off the exchange. As I wrote:

Many dropouts have loans, which are much harder to repay when one fails to finish, or gets a worthless degree. Borrowers on the academic margins, who often attend community colleges and for-profit schools, likely struggle the most to repay even though their debts tend to be relatively small. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 34% of borrowers with debts between $1,000 and $5,000 defaulted, versus only 18% with debts in excess of $100,000, a level of debt associated with advanced degrees.

Where the confusion might lie is that I thought in his response to me Reed was suggesting that a major problem for anyone coming out of community college was that the minimum wage was too low and, connected to that, so were the wages of entry-level jobs. This was based on the following:

Why are former students having a hard time paying debt back? Mostly because entry-level jobs don’t pay very well. But McCluskey never addresses either the supply of entry-level jobs, or the minimum wage. 

Knowing that Reed did not mean to include graduates among “former students” makes his comments about low wages less alarming. Still, his solution – raise low wages instead of requiring evidence of college readiness – seems a broad, slow, and dubious way to deal with the debt problem. “Broad” because it calls for, essentially, overhauling a huge part of the economy as opposed to specifically reforming students loans; “slow” because doing that would take a pretty long time; and “dubious” because there is a lot of evidence that raising the minimum wage has substantial negative effects.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, Reed calls for “free (or much less expensive) community college.”

Free community college would probably solve the problem of community college noncompleters leaving with debt, depending on how one accounted for living expenses, but it comes with its own set of troubles. The first is that we would likely still have lots of people not finishing, only the costs would be borne more by taxpayers and less by students. The second is that, unless “free” were somehow focused on the poor, you would have taxpayers subsidizing well-to-do people. Recent data show about 39 percent of dependent undergraduate students at community colleges, and about 54 percent of independent students, are from the upper half of the income distribution.  About 16 and 28 percent are from the highest income quartile. Then there is the question of how to pay for this, especially if making it free leads to even more people enrolling. And will community colleges be able to handle all of the new students, or will they have to ration spots? What will encourage students to complete their studies as quickly as possible?

Then there is this: Taxpayers would have used the money sent to community colleges for their own ends. Maybe for buying food, employing farmers and truck drivers and lots of other people. Or maybe they’d have invested it in businesses, some of which may have employed low-skill labor. Or maybe they’d have bought cars to get their kids back and forth to school, in the process employing autoworkers. Quite simply, there are major opportunity costs to society when we funnel money into community colleges, and it is not at all clear that the more beneficial use of taxpayer dollars is higher education.

One last critique of Reed’s rebuttal: He attacks my proposal that we put student lending in private hands by writing, “I took offense at the prospect of replacing universal access to higher education with screening done by the same people who caused the mortgage crisis.” I’d suggest he reexamine the mortgage crisis. Government “help” – much like student loans – had a lot to do with it.

Reed is certainly right, though, to ask what to do to help unprepared people now, while the loan qualification debate is mainly about not inflicting more harm. Ultimately, a sustainable college preparation solution must come before people reach higher education – and I have strong opinions on how to do that – but what about for people right now who did not get an adequate K-12 education and want a better future?

I’m not sure what the answers are – I’d love to hear suggestions – or even if there are any that are really satisfactory, especially if we want to avoid major, negative, unintended consequences that might go with them. I suspect viable ones might involve options like apprenticeships and quick, specific-skill programs – perhaps provided by community colleges or for-profit schools – or even remedial learning through outlets like the Khan Academy. Indeed, maybe a relatively quick measure – though it would involve changing law – would be Washington putting limits on loan amounts so that they would only cover a few courses, aimed at getting specific skills, or just remediation. What I am pretty sure are not solutions are spending more on community colleges to make them free to students, raising the minimum wage, or giving out loans to pursue degrees for which students are unprepared.