Tag: student loan

Dr. Frankenstein on His Creation: It’s All The Monster’s Fault

As I have explained on numerous occasions, supporters of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) – which would end federal guaranteed student loans, turn everything into lending direct from Uncle Sam, and spend the resulting savings and way much more – have often shamelessly promoted the bill as a boon to taxpayers when it will almost certainly cost them tens-of-billions.  Where they have generally been right is in rebutting criticisms that SAFRA would be a federal takeover of a private industry. With lender profits all but assured under federal guaranteed lending, the vast majority of student loans haven’t been truly private for decades.

Unfortunately, SAFRA advocates are just as clueless – or, more likely, rhetorically unbridled – about what constitutes a private entity as are status-quo supporters. Case in point, an article in today’s Huffington Post that, along with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, attempts to portray the suddenly rocky road ahead for SAFRA as a result of evil lender lobbyists dropping boulders in the selfless legislation’s way:

Taking aim at Sallie Mae, the largest student lender in the country and a driving force behind the lobbying effort, Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday accused the company of using taxpayer funds to lobby and advertise, and cast its executives as white-collar millionaires uninterested in serious education reform.

“Sallie Mae executives have paid themselves hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade while teachers, nurses, and scientists – the backbone of the new economy – face crushing debt because of runaway college tuition costs,” Duncan said.

Here Sallie Mae is painted in the same ugly hues as Lehman Brothers, AIG, and all the other supposedly rapacious, unscrupulous companies whose unchecked greed, we’re told, brought the American economy to its knees. (We also get the baseless but obligatory pronouncement about “crushing debt” for teachers and other toilers for the “public good.”)

But wait! Doesn’t  “Sallie Mae” sound a lot like”Fannie Mae” and “Freddie Mac”? Of course! That’s because just like Fannie and Freddie, Sallie was created by the federal government,  only with Sallie’s job being to furnish lots of cheap college loans. And guess what? Just like Fannie and Freddie, Sallie became by far the biggest kid on her block because her huge federal creator fed her and protected her for decades, not setting her off on her own until 1996. But that part of her story doesn’t fit anywhere into the evil corporation narrative, so it’s just not mentioned.  All we need to know is Sallie is private, her owners and employees make a lot of money, and that is why she is evil and dangerous.

And so the politics of demonization and denial, a staple of the recession blame game, continues. Private institutions are portrayed as malevolent predators and government as a warm, pure, protective father-figure. But there is much more accurate imagery possible when it comes to Sallie Mae: Egomaniacal Dr. Frankenstein furiously blaming the monster he created for doing exactly what he built it to do.

And some wonder why there’s such widespread outrage – the real reason SAFRA is in trouble – about ever-expanding federal power?

Obama Ringing the Pell

As part of his ill-considered credentialing-to-compete initiative, President Obama wants to greatly increase both the size and availablity of Pell Grants. Under his proposed FY 2011 budget, the total pot of Pell aid would rise from $28.2 billion in 2009 to $34.8 billion in 2011; the maximum award would go from $5,350 to $5,710; and the number of students served would rise by around 1 million.  

A critical question, of course, is whether increasing Pell will ultimately make college more affordable or self-defeatingly fuel further tuition inflation. The New York Times took that up in yesterday’s Room for Debate blog.

Economist Richard Vedder has long educated people about the inflationary effect of student aid, and does so again with great clarity. It’s higher-ed analyst Art Hauptman, however, whom I think best captures what likely occurs when Pell is combined with all the cheap loans and other aid furnished by Washington, states, and schools themselves:

The degree to which student aid affects what colleges and universities charge varies between the Pell Grant and student loans. The Pell Grant has not had much effect on tuition levels in part because the amount of the awards does not vary with where a student enrolls. Institutions cannot affect how much a student receives, and the institutions that charge the most enroll the fewest Pell Grant recipients.

By contrast…there are several good reasons to believe that student loans have been a factor in the rising cost of a college education. Tuition has increased by twice the inflation rate for the past three decades while annual loan volume has increased tenfold in constant dollars.

Unlike Pell Grants…colleges have some control over how much students borrow as loan amounts. Moreover, just as one couldn’t imagine house prices being as high as they now are if mortgage financing were not available, it is difficult to believe that colleges and universities could have increased their charges so rapidly over time without the ready availability of students’ ability to borrow.

[W]e should worry…that increases in Pell Grants may lead institutions to reduce the amount of discounts they would otherwise have provided to the recipients, who are from poor families, and move the aid these students would have received to others. This possibility…is supported by the data showing that public and private institutions are now more likely to provide more aid to more middle-income students than low-income students.

So what’s likely going on? Cheap federal loans – which are available to students of all income levels and vary according to a college’s price – are probably the main direct tuition inflator. More indirectly, Pell probably encourages schools to move other aid from poorer to wealthier students, enabling the latter to pay ever-higher “sticker” prices. In other words, student aid powers tuition inflation!

Which brings me to a quick comment about the submission from College Board economist Sandy Baum, who trots out the standard “declining state appropriations”  to explain our college-price pain.

How many more times do I need to disprove this? Apparently, at least once more:

(Source: State Higher Education Executive Officers)

Public funding is a roller coaster and tuition revenue an incline. Over the last quarter century, per-pupil state and local funding for public colleges and universities went up and down, but dropped overall by a mere $8 per year. In contrast, public colleges’ per-pupil revenue from tuition (net of state and local student aid) rose more or less unabated, growing by about $73 per year. 

This – as well as the fact that private colleges are also guilty of huge price inflation – clearly belies the notion that colleges raise prices because skinflinty governments make them. That might be part of the explanation, but an even bigger part is almost certainly that colleges raise prices because, thanks to ever-growing student aid, they can.

How’d That Get in Here?

Understandably, the public is a little preoccupied right now with efforts in Washington to “reform” health care by making it much, much worse. Fortunately, people are starting to notice that a congressional bum rush is heading right toward them — maybe they’ll be able stop it in time. Unfortunately, that is giving Washington a chance to sneak some other stuff by us.

In particular, I’m thinking of the just-introduced Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. It’s been largely ignored so far, save a little chatter about the community college stuff it incorporates. In a simpler time, it would have generated a lot more copy. After all, it will:

  • end federally backed student loans that come through private companies, and instead make Uncle Sam the universal lender;
  • greatly increase Pell Grants and peg their growth to the rate of inflation plus 1 point;
  • balloon the federal Perkins loan program;
  • authorize $5 billion over two years for elementary and secondary school facility projects, with a focus on “green” efforts;
  • authorize $10 billion over ten years for Early Learning Challenge Grants; and
  • furnish $12 billion for community colleges.

Not all of this, I should say, is terrible. Getting rid of the Federal Family Education Loan Program — which backs loans coming from ostensibly private companies and guarantees lenders a profit — is a good thing. But replacing it all with loans directly from D.C.? That’s a bad thing.

To be fair, transitioning from guaranteed to direct lending could save some money, especially in the short run, eliminating various fees and guarantees Washington pays to lenders under FFEL. But those savings almost certainly won’t be the $87 billion over ten years supporters claim, a number that is no doubt overstated as a result of budget chicanery and how quickly government grows. And don’t expect taxpayers to benefit from whatever savings are ultimately generated. According to the proud declaration of SAFRA sponsor George Miller (D-CA), only $10 billion of the projected $87 billion savings is slated for deficit reduction. The rest — breathtaking deficit be damned! — is going to standard, feel-good government spending, including school “modernization” projects and “early learning” grants

Which brings me to the community college components, which have, unlike the rest of the bill, been getting some media play. I wrote about them earlier this week, noting especially that they make little sense in light of Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers showing that positions requiring on-the-job training will grow in much greater numbers than jobs requiring at least an associate’s degree. What I didn’t mention was the dismal performance of community college students, who take remedial courses in droves and complete their programs at very low rates.

Ah, but we’re told that this new legislation, backed wholeheartedly by the Obama administration, is going to reform community colleges. As David Brooks celebrates in his column today:

The Obama initiative is designed to go right at these deeper problems. It sets up a significant innovation fund, which, if administered properly, could set in motion a spiral of change. It has specific provisions for remedial education, outcome tracking and online education. It links public sector training with specific private sector employers.

Now, I thought Brooks was supposed to be a seasoned political observer, but he seems to have swallowed the reform-y rhetoric hook, line, and sinker. He’s seasoned enough, though, to give himself an out with the qualifier, “if administered properly.”

He’s gonna’ need that out, though the reform failure probably won’t be primarily administrative; the legislation itself offers gaping holes through which schools can escape real reform. To get “innovation” grants, schools would simply have to agree to do such nebulous, input-centric things as provide “student support services” and implement “other innovative programs.” In other words, they’d need do nothing meaningful at all.

Unfortunately, this bill will probably become law. Few politicians or interest groups are standing firmly against it, and with health care storming the public’s front door, few people will notice SAFRA tiptoeing through the back. Combine that with the few people who are writing about the bill giving it little critical thought, and its passage seems assured.

Why Should We Pity These People?

A couple of weeks ago, I ripped apart a factually anemic but all-too-typical USA Today article decrying the plight of student debtors. Today, the grand journalistic tradition of anecdote-and-pity laden reporting on student debt continues with offerings from Business Week and The New York Times.

In an article about tight times for student loan forgiveness programs, The Old Gray Lady sticks with the journalistic tried-and-true by leading with an extreme anecdote that readers, presumably, are supposed to see as illustrating typical suffering:

When a Kentucky agency cut back its program to forgive student loans for schoolteachers, Travis B. Gay knew he and his wife, Stephanie — both special-education teachers — were in trouble.

“We’d gotten married in June and bought a house, pretty much planned our whole life,” said Mr. Gay, 26. Together, they had about $100,000 in student loans that they expected the program to help them repay over five years.

Then, he said, “we get a letter in the mail saying that our forgiveness this year was next to nothing.”

Now they are weighing whether to sell their three-bedroom house in Lawrenceburg, Ky., some 20 miles west of Lexington. Otherwise, Mr. Gay said, “it’s going to be very difficult for us to do our student loan payments, house payments and just eat.”

Please, Mr. Gay (and Mr. Glater, the author of this heart-string puller)! You, and presumably your wife, are only in your mid-twenties, have what appears to be a very nice home according to the picture accompanying the article, and yet have the nerve to assert that taxpayers should eat your student loans lest you not eat at all!

Excuse me if I don’t start singing “We Are the World.”

This is simple greed – you know, the stuff for which the media regularly excoriates “big business” – but readers are expected to see it as suffering because it involves recent college grads. Oh, and grads who have gone into teaching, according to Glater “a high-value but often low-paying” field. That the Gays have felt wealthy enough to buy a house despite holding much greater than normal student debt – and the fact that on an hourly basis teachers get paid on par with comparable professionals – doesn’t present any impediment to the reporter repeating the baseless underpaid teacher myth. It’s all just part of the standard narratives.

Business Week’s piece isn’t much better than the Times’, though at least reporter John Tozzi had the decency not to start off with an emotionally manipulative anecdote of supposed human suffering. His third paragraph, however, centers around “analysis” from the student-centric Project on Student Debt, and he rolls out the ol’ Tale of Woe right after:

“It’s just so frustrating,” says Susan D. Strayer, director of talent acquisition for Ritz-Carlton in Washington. “They tell you to be self-made. They tell you get yourself a good education and you can get yourself into a pretty big hole.” Strayer, 33, has $90,000 in student loan debt from her bachelor’s at Virginia Tech and a master’s from George Washington University. She also has an MBA from Vanderbilt University, which she earned on a full scholarship—but skipped two years of earnings to acquire. Strayer says her monthly loan payments of $600 barely budge the principal on her debt. She doesn’t regret her educational decisions, although she says the debt load has made her put off plans to pursue a consulting side business full-time.

So Ms. Strayer chose one of the most expensive schools in the country —George Washington — for a Master’s (in what we do not know); we have no information about why she chose to finance her education through loans (she and her parents bought new cars, clothes, and stereos instead of saving for college, perhaps?); but we are supposed to feel it is a terrible thing that at 33 she hasn’t been able to start a full-time consulting business. Why is that, exactly?

Thankfully, though he frontloads anecdotes and pity parties, Tozzi ends his piece with a clear, if far too rare, voice of reason:

“It’s easy for me to say, ‘Oh, I have all this student loan debt,’ but I chose to take it and I have to deal with the consequences of that choice,” [24-year-old] Patricia Hudak says. “So many people in my generation think of everything as a short-term investment with immediate return.”

Finally, someone I can truly feel sorry for! Why? Because with journalists cheering it on, Ms. Hudak is exactly the kind of person that our political system will punish, making her pay not only for her own choices, but those of the Gays, Ms. Strayer, and countless other student debtors who really do think that everything, and everybody, should give them an immediate — and huge — payoff.

Old Enough to Die for Your Country, Too Young for a Credit Card

While much of the debate around the so-called “Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights” has been on ending various card policies aimed at disguising different credit risks, one group of cardholders is certain to lose their right to credit under this bill: adults between the ages of 18 and 21.

Under the current Senate bill, the only way for someone under the age of 21 to get a credit card would be either:

1) they have a co-signer, such as their parent, sign for it, or

2) they maintain a job with sufficient income to cover any obligations arising from the credit card.

By contrast, neither of these requirements is put in place for student loans; there is the clear expectation that you pay those loans back in the future from your increased future income that results from going to college. While the purpose of a student loan is to offer one the means to get a higher education, the purpose of any form of credit is to borrow against your future earnings in order to enjoy some consumption today. Whether that consumption is in the form of textbooks or beer and pizza should be left up to the individual—we are talking about adults here—and not the state.

As with any legislation, there are likely to be substantial unintended consequences. Of the approximately 18 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges, some number of those will not want to give up their credit cards (maybe they value their beer and pizza) and will accordingly take what may be their only option to maintain that consumption: a job in addition to their studies. As with any choice in lift, this one comes with a trade-off. One of the primary factors related to whether one graduates from college is if one is holding a job while in college—the relationship being that the more hours a student works unrelated to classes, the less likely they are to finish college. Some students are going to take that trade-off. That means one impact of this bill will be that slightly fewer students will finish college. If we are ever to expect college students to start behaving as adults, we should start treating them as such, including allowing them to make their own credit decisions.