Topic: Education and Child Policy

To Fix Student Lending, Government Must Go

There’s been a lot of unflattering news lately about the student loan industry: Revelations about schools and lenders in revenue-sharing deals; college financial aid officers holding stock in companies on their schools’ “preferred lender” lists; a U.S. Department of Education official owning shares in a lending company he was supposed to be overseeing; and just yesterday, revelations that some lending companies have had largely unfettered access to a federal database stocked with Social Security numbers, email addresses, loan balances, and other sensitive information belonging to tens-of-millions of student borrowers.

To many people, these revelations are just further evidence of the immoral, rapacious greed of for-profit lenders. As Generation Debt author Anya Kamenetz explained recently on the Huffington Post blog:

When I wrote my first piece about the student debt crisis in the Village Voice in June 2004, the future looked grim. Average student loan burdens doubled in the 1990s to nearly $20,000, and in February 2006, barely a year ago, Congress passed the largest cuts to student aid in history.

I never would have guessed that the tide would turn so quickly and that the loan industry, with its fat profits, billions in government subsidies, private jets and baseball teams, would be on the defensive. But here we are.

Kamenetz and others like her are right to be angry about the cushy arrangements lenders have secured through the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), which guarantees student loans with federal tax dollars. Her solution to the overall student loan mess, however, would do little to attack the root cause of the scandals and graft:

The Direct Loan Program. Switching [to it from FFELP], as described in the reintroduced STAR Act, would save billions we could then use for much needed grant aid. And a “single payer” Direct Loan program would save on marketing costs and limit the potential for scandals like the current one.

The federal Direct Loan Program – which currently furnishes about a quarter of all federal student loans – cuts out private lenders and sends loans directly from the U.S. Treasury to college kids. Now, that might be cheaper to run – though that is itself hotly debated – but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, which is just what we’d be doing if we decided to solve the current student loan disaster by giving the federal government even more student lending power. The government, you see, is the root cause of the current problems, not the solution:

  • The subsidies that have enriched lenders were created by federal policymakers, not loan companies.
  • Massive federal aid – which according to the latest inflation-adjusted data from the College Board exploded from $48.3 billion to $94.4 billion over just the last decade – has helped fuel skyrocketing tuition, creating ever-bigger federal and private loan markets.
  • Some of the biggest problems unearthed so far directly involve federal breakdowns, including a federal official owning over $100,000 worth of stock in a company he was supposed to be overseeing, and federal bureaucrats giving some lenders almost free rein to comb over highly sensitive student data. (Which, by the way, also ought to make even the most trusting person very dubious of federal promises to fully protect student privacy if allowed to maintain a proposed “unit record database” containing detailed information on every college student in America.)

Unfortunately, many of the student lending industry’s antagonists aren’t actually all that concerned with maximizing efficiency or saving taxpayers money. What they’re primarily interested in is getting as many cheap dollars to students as they can. In other words, its not outrageous subsidies they’re especially angry about, but that the wrong special interests are getting them.

Michael Dannenberg, Director of the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program and editor of its Higher Ed Watch blog, recently made this abundantly clear:

The ultimate success of these student loan investigations will be measured by the degree to which they result in cheaper college loans for students and families. Right now, students are paying interest rates for college loans that are simply too high.

Apparently it doesn’t matter that total, inflation-adjusted federal aid doubled over the last decade; that inflation-adjusted aid per full-time-equivalent student rose from $6,700 to $10,113 in that same time, or that the interest rate on subsidized federal loans is fixed at 6.8 percent while the prime rate is currently 8.25 percent. For Dannenberg and others like him, when it comes to federal policy college students never get a fair deal.

In light of the reality that the special interests most heavily involved in the student aid debate want as much money for themselves as they can get, and that the government has almost always been happy to provide it, it’s clear that what would be best for taxpayers would neither be to maintain FFELP nor to switch completely to Direct Lending, but to eliminate federal aid altogether. Then, the people who would be enriched would be taxpayers – well, maybe “unharmed” would be a more accurate description – while both lenders and students would finally have to earn an honest buck.

Let’s Get One Thing Straight

As Washington gears up to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), you can expect to hear a lot of over-the top-rhetoric. “NCLB is working.” “The law is underfunded.” Things like that.

And then there’s this gem uttered yesterday by President Bush:

It’s really important for the citizens to understand that I’m a huge believer in the public school systems. I believe our public schools have really made America.

Now, a lot of the crazy rhetoric we’re going to be subjected to during reauthorization is going to need refutation, but let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Public schooling — especially the super-centralized, big-government public schooling enshrined in NCLB — did NOT make America. That is a myth that’s been perpetuated to prop up failed public schooling for far too long, and it’s about time people stopped putting up with it.

As I discuss at some length in Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, and Marie Gryphon explains in detail in Our History of Educational Freedom: What It Should Mean for Families Today, public schooling imposed from above is not how education was delivered in America until relatively recently. During the nation’s colonial and Founding periods — when the United States was literally made — education was delivered almost exclusively through private and voluntary means and it worked very well. Indeed, that was the case until almost the end of the nineteenth century, when the progressive movement finally started closing the door on parental freedom and imposing centralized control over education.

And that’s when things started to really go downhill.

Centralizing control of education at higher and higher levels, and forcing all Americans to support public schooling with their tax dollars, has spurred constant fighting and done nothing to improve educational outcomes. Whether it’s been battles over the teaching of human origins, prayer in schools, multiculturalism, book-banning, sex education, phonics and whole language, or numerous other issues, government schooling has divided Americans while simultaneously giving government officials and bureaucrats a virtual, suffocating monopoly over American education.

What really built America is something quite the opposite of compulsory, centralized public schooling. Freedom — not big government — is what built this nation, rewarding hard work, driving innovation, attracting millions of immigrants to our shores, and unifying diverse ethnic and religious groups through their common desires for liberty and prosperity.

Freedom is what really built America, and it’s time that people stopped giving public schooling credit for its success.

It’s the System, Comrade

In response to my recent Washington Post piece criticizing government-imposed curricula and standards, an ed prof. just wrote to say: “Yes, but….”

His objection was that he did not see the need for market forces to drive excellence in education, citing a consortium of public schools in the Chicago suburbs as an example of high quality within the current monopoly system.

This not only misses my point, it inadvertently proves it.

My point is not that pockets of quality and thrift are impossible within a monopoly system, but that those pockets generally remain isolated and transitory. Monopolies lack a mechanism by which excellence is automatically and routinely encouraged, identified, disseminated and perpetuated. That mechanism is what markets provide, and is why, as I wrote in the WaPo piece, iPods have gone from 5 to 80 gigabytes, and televisions from 4” black and white tubes to 4’ color panels.

While a monopoly school system can certainly have bright spots, they tend to be isolated and transitory. Brilliant government school teachers are at best given a plaque, and at worst driven out of the system (as happened to Jaime Escalante). Pointing to isolated public school successes from decades past – successes that were not replicated elsewhere, not expanded, and usually not even sustained for more than a generation – is proof that our government monopoly lacks the market’s excellence engine.

In education markets, like the Asian tutoring industry, top teachers are superstars who get to design curricula for thousands or even millions of students and train scores or hundreds of other teachers to use their effective methods. Quality providers expand and are emulated by competitors, and there is a powerful incentive for meaningful innovation.

One teacher in Korea’s private tutoring sector made $2 million last year because his web-based employer has profit sharing and he’s brilliant at what he does, so he gets tons of students. That’s what should have happened to Escalante. That’s the sort of success that should greet excellence in education at all levels. It doesn’t because we don’t have a market.

National Standards, Aussie Style

If the U.S. does decide to homogenize its education system with uniform national standards and tests, our misery may be lessened by some companionship from the land down under.

Australia is currently toying with the same idea, and columnist Kevin Donnelly is trying to keep his country from biting that particular bullet (or rather, the muzzle of the gun housing it).

Donnelly tempts fate, however, by suggesting a federal government role in evaluating national curricula proposed by independent sources. It’s a small political step from evaluation to prescription, and there’s no compelling reason to think that government involvement would help. 

Where’s the “D”?

Alexander Russo blogs today about the disconnect in education between research and practice.

Mike Lieberman has done a good job explaining this disconnect in books like Public Education: An Autopsy. He points to the fact that, in other fields, there is a powerful market incentive for applied research. It’s R and D, not just R, and the only justification for the former is the latter. When you don’t have a market, you don’t have that systemic incentive for applied R&D. Instead, pedagogical methods are chosen for their ideological appeal (e.g. whole language), by accident (the infamous California case where Nobel laureate in physics Richard Feynman revealed that several members of his textbook adoption committee had actually rated a blank math textbook), or by conflict of interest (because there ARE incentives in our current school systems, they just aren’t market incentives that make it desirable to find and implement the best, most efficient methods).

Welfare for the Wealthy (an Ongoing Series)

An earlier post noted the hot political trend of convincing the upper middle class and the wealthy that they are financially vulnerable and in need of government assistance.

From loan subsidies for McMansions to blue-blood public works, from the doling out of market power and financial support to businessmen, to the offering of government money and tax breaks to (usually well-to-do) people who consume in a government-approved manner, politicians of Red stripes and Blue are all about helping the down-and-out in the (gated) community.

Such welfare-for-the-wealthy is the subtext of Sunday’s NYT story about the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP was once intended to help children in families that are low-income but that do not qualify for Medicaid; now Congress is pushing for the state-operated/federally supported program to use its money to cover families up to four times the poverty level (e.g., a family of four earning $82,600 a year) — that is, nearly all families in the second-highest income quintile, aka the upper middle class.

The NYT article includes a provocative figure about the effects of CHIP. When the program was first implemented, the percentage of families with income between the poverty level and 200% of the poverty level (i.e., the families whom the program was intended to help) with uninsured children began to decline, falling from 20% in 1998 to about 12% by 2002. However, the percentage of those lower-income families with privately insured children also began to fall over that time, from about 55% to about 45%. Since 2002, the percentage of uninsured children in that income range has roughly plateaued while the percentage of children with private insurance has continued to fall, to about 35 percent by 2006. This suggests (though, by itself, does not prove) that, by 2002, CHIP had gone about as far as it could go in reducing the percentage of uninsured children in poor families; since then, CHIP has simply displaced private insurance — a dubious policy goal.

Given that, it’s no wonder politicians want to mission-creep CHIP into wealthier income brackets. But one must wonder what the next welfare-for-the-wealthy program will be. Perhaps a chicken in every pot and a Lexus in every garage?