Let's Fix This Country

Supreme Court Might Erase Race from Affirmative Action »

In hearing Texas case, justices ask about other approaches Dec 26 2015

Told by the Supreme Court in 2013 to review and tighten its admissions policies of racial preferences, the University of Texas took no action, and accordingly was hauled back before the justices in early December. In a succession of cases the Court has forbade using quotas for admitting minority groups and has allowed using race narrowly and only as one of the criteria to arrive at the diversity needed for students to be exposed to and learn from others unlike themselves.


This time, however, the justices seemed skeptical of whether giving preferential treatment to an applicant just because he or she is black or indigenous-American — the principal application of affirmative action — is a good idea. That has evidently come about because the "mismatch theory" in education has made inroads to the debate. It holds that the deeper the gap between a school's admission standards and the allowances made for race or some disadvantage in accepting students, the greater the likelihood the student will do poorly, become discouraged, and be harmed by failure. The student would do better by attending a lesser institution with academic requirements more attuned to his or her preparedness.

When Justice Scalia ventured into this terrain with, “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school — a slower-track school where they do well”, it was defensible because in deciding cases a justice must be free to posit challenges to what is being argued without caring a damn for "political correctness". But Scalia being Scalia, he immediately tossed professionalism aside by continuing with, “I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible”. Scalia n the first person stepped in to take the place of "those who contend", revealing his premeditated bias going in.

There are also those who contend the opposite, such as in one of the amicus briefs from the "dozens of education organizations", military officers and major corporations in support of UT, the University of Texas. It said, "minority students who benefit from affirmative action get higher grades at the institutions they attend, leave school at lower rates than others, and are generally more satisfied in higher education".

If that seems overly rosy, there is a different advantage to taking the tougher road in the more demanding college — the reputation for that accomplishment and the caché of that school's name on one's resumé that a graduate can carry through life compared to graduating from a lesser university. The justices should know that — three of them went to Princeton, one to Harvard and all to Yale or Harvard for their law degerees.


Justice Kennedy seemed to yearn for more data about UT's experience, possibly feeling put upon to have to be the one who will solely decide this case, given that the right and left wings are show signs of being settled in their views. (Chief Justice John Roberts asked, "What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?"). There is speculation that the protests at colleges might persuade Kennedy that the diversity sought by affirmative action has only resulted in pitched battles between warring camps on campuses. Much of the demonstrations are by blacks attempting to suppress free speech and who make demands of their universities such as insisting that courses in black history be mandatory for all students. It's human nature that the justices may be looking at these goings on — reflecting on how many of those students have their tuitions paid for by need-blind policies, yet are witless of the opportunity granted them — and saying to themselves about affirmative action, "what's the point, why bother"?

The universities, anxious to lure students that come bearing generous government loans, abet the divisiveness by accommodating every group's wishes, setting up "safe" spaces where "affinity groups" can meet, with the result that students cluster among those with shared backgrounds and lock onto views that are impervious to the awakening of different knowledge and clashing opinions that diversity was supposed to deliver. Student bodies may be diverse but they do not blend. "A given college may be a heterogeneous archipelago. But most of its students spend the bulk of their time on one of many homogeneous islands", as Frank Bruni of The New York Times aptly described it.

class-based policy

The shift away from race as a permissible criterion is toward giving a leg up to those in lower socioeconomic strata as the alternative. UT policies have the effect of doing that to some degree. By state law, the university must take the top 10% of those who apply from Texas high schools, which fills about 75% of the available slots. (It is in the remaining 25% of admissions that race factors as a qualifier and is being challenged by the Court.) The 10% method sweeps in African-Americans from high schools in black neighborhoods, often satisfying both socioeconomic and racial goals. But in sharp rebuke, Justice Ginsburg made the point that for the top-10 program to work, to produce a good socioeconomic mix, means it must be

“driven by one thing only, and that thing is race; it’s totally dependent upon having racially segregated neighborhoods, racially segregated schools, and it operates as a disincentive for a minority student to step out of that segregated community and attempt to get an integrated education"

because that student has a better chance of making the top 10% by staying in the worst schools.

How well would socioeconomic selecting do in pulling requisite numbers of ethnic minorities into college as a by-product? Sigal Alon, an Israeli at Tel Aviv University, using U.S. data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, says, not well.

"Class-based programs could enlarge the socioeconomic and geographic diversity at the 115 institutions I examined. Yet, as in Israel, the student bodies of elite American colleges would be substantially less racially and ethnically diverse than they are now."


The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, who failed to gain admittance to the University of Texas in 2008 but went on the graduate from the University of Louisiana. Ms Fisher, who is white, claims like others before her (e.g., University of California v. Bakke, 1978) that she was unfairly discriminated against, that she lost a place at UT that was given to someone less deserving. Like the "one man, one vote" hearing in our other Supreme Court article, this case, too, is based on denial of equal protection under the 14th Amendment, and behind it is the same group as that case, the Project on Fair Representation. In other words, this is a conservative movement to scale back affirmative action or eliminate it altogether.

Which does prompt the question of whether affirmative action will ever end; that is, will it ever no longer be needed? It's a policy that treats the symptoms, not the illness. It steps in at the end of the educational process rather than prescribing preventative medicine at the beginning. There is the growing movement of charter schools that end run the teachers' unions and have the freedom to eliminate the bad teachers and reward the good. There are the repairs just made to No Child Left Behind to cut back on the excess testing that had gotten in the way of learning. But the economic imbalance of poverty zones and terrible inner city schools remains. They go on producing kids with below-grade educations, all but a few unable to pursue higher education and only those few having a miraculous spark of ambition able to break through. But scarred by a dozen years of deficient preparation, they can do so only with the need of affirmative help, and no end to that is in sight.


Our Magnanimous Government Will Use Your Money to Waive Student Debt »

A big for-profit college collapse could be the first of many Jun 21 2015

It begins. The student loan crisis that has been just over the horizon.

The federal government has announced that it will forgive loans to students lured to colleges by fraudulent marketing promises. The policy stems from
the bankruptcy of Corinthian Colleges, which had been preceded by student protests and their refusal to pay for worthless educations. But Education Secretary Arne Duncan says that the waiver policy will apply to money owed by students defrauded by any college, public or private.

The cost for Corinthian alone, should all its 350,000 students of the last five years apply to have their debts wiped clean, would come to an estimated $3.5 billion, said the Department of Education.

Our article, "The Intractable Student Loan Mess", previously dealt with the mounting threat to taxpayers, who will be on the hook ultimately to pay for students who default on their loan repayments. And that article cited several ways that the government will forgive loan balances after good faith payment records, with the waived cost passed on to the public. But we need now add to that the new category of wholesale waivers that absolve students of their entire debt in the wake of college bankruptcies. "There will be more", says Duncan.

waiting to happen

The government student loan program was designed for disaster. The policy of issuing loans to virtually any youth to go to any school led large corporations, private equity firms and even hedge funds to chase after the huge pool of government money. At peak they had created some 2,000 for-profit colleges, some no more than storefronts. Little emphasis was paid to academics. The marketing departments, whose job it was to talk prospective students into taking out government loans to pay to their colleges, often outstripped the size of the faculty. None of them could have continued without the loose accreditation policies of the Education Department that made the colleges eligible to be paid by government-issued student loans, because they subsisted almost entirely on that source of revenue.

The outcome has been that, while the for-profits account for only 12% of students, they account for nearly half of all loan defaults. Only 32% of students stay to graduate from the four-year programs, earning degrees viewed as inferior by employers. The other two-thirds drop out with nothing to show for their mistake but debt. Of 21 institutions that last fall were running default rates so high that they could lose the right to accept federally issued students loans, 20 of them were from the private, for-profit ranks.

Worse, federal data analyzed by the Institute for College Access and Success shows that graduates of for-profit schools are more likely to have debt of $40,000 or more, given that those marketing departments prey heavily on low income youths persuading them to take their over-priced calorie-free courses.

cold turkey for corinthian

The experience with Corinthian will no doubt be repeated. The Department of Education (DoE) has generally had difficulty getting the performance statistics from Corinthian that are required for accreditation. Without that validation the government won't issue loans to students who want to attend a school. Early last year the DoE gave Corinthian a deadline to produce data and when the college said it could not, the government put a 21-day hold on turning over any further money from loans until Corinthian came up with the data.

This caused a cash crisis. So completely dependent on government-issued student loan money is Corinthian — that's why these colleges exists, after all — that 90% of their revenue vanished. The government gave the school tide over money but told it to sell assets and liquidate.

The Wall Street Journal wrote a string of outraged editorials decrying (in this example) the government's "regulatory ambush" that "began to drive Corinthian out of business by choking off" student aid for "supposedly stonewalling exhaustive document requests" and had forced the company "at gunpoint" a year ago to sell 85 campuses and close a dozen others. Government forcing closure of a business was the offense, not the swindle. The paper's own news columns acknowledged that a number of state attorneys general had filed "scores of lawsuits" alleging fraud in recruiting students. It had falsified grades, attendance, and job-placement statistics. At least one of its schools had paid temp agencies to hire graduates for a couple of days so they could be counted as employed. A 2014 Consumer Finance Protection Bureau lawsuit claimed that Corinthian had “lured tens of thousands of students to take out private loans to cover expensive tuition costs by advertising bogus job prospects and career services”. The DoE had fined the college $30 million for 947 instances at just one campus of phony post-graduate employment data. These were "paperwork errors", said a Journal editorial. Add to it all that other colleges do not honor Corinthian course completion credits.

It is the Department of Education itself that issues loans to students and decides which colleges qualify to receive payment from those loans. The Department itself then collects from students. The DoE has been slow to see the problems coming and slower still to act. This page first reported in "The Next Financial Crisis: Student Loans" almost three years ago — and since.

Now, as the DoE discovers it has been less than rigorous in accrediting colleges before handing them billions in loans, Secretary Duncan belatedly declares himself shocked to find that for-profit schools have brought “the ethics of payday lending into higher education”. The DoE will increasingly face having to bring about their collapse by shutting off their eligibility for payment by student loans. That in turn leads to cancellation of the students' debt, aggravating the cost to the public that the reckless largess of the department for approving loans to those Potemkin colleges to begin with.

making matters worse

Congress has always been complicit in the student loan program. More than one of the 2,000 colleges are bound to be in everyone's home district, so Congress members champion the for-profits for the money they bring. More than that, Congress views students as a profit center, as reported here two years ago when there was a fight to keep the interest rate on loans at a reprehensible 6.8%, callously indifferent that these are students who will be entering entry-level jobs, if fortunate enough to find a job, and at a time when banks were borrowing — as they still can — from the government at virtually 0%. So avaricious was Congress to make money off students and burden them through their lives that it passed a law stating that even if you declare personal bankruptcy, you cannot discharge a college loan debt owed to the government.

Now that the predicted problems are breaking out, Congress wants us to think its hands are clean. Lamar Alexander, Republican senator from Tennessee and chairman of an education committee, thinks the cost shouldn't be the problem of the government even though its accreditation helped dupe the students into trusting the schools and it was the government that handed them the loans to pay to those schools. Yet Lamar says, “If your car is a lemon you don’t sue the bank that made the auto loan; you sue the car company”. How would that work out, each student independently suing a bankrupt school, while the government says, "None of our doing"?

There is already a decades-old law that grants debt relief to students at colleges that close their doors, but by expanding that to fraud, seemingly whether a college has closed or not, . Duncan is being magnanimous with other people's money — ours. He said in a conference call with reporters that the administration is “determined to crack down on colleges that leave students with huge debt, worthless degrees and few job prospects”. But as it chokes off giving loans to students to attend schools that graduate too few, or that show dismal post-graduate employment rates, or are found to falsify such data, it will be the government itself — shutting the schools its indiscriminate lending allowed to exist — that will cause the mushrooming loan cancellation costs, sticking taxpayers with the tab.


For-Profit Colleges – A National Disgrace »

Ripping off the younger generation Aug 12 2012 Update: October 21: Citing declining applicants, the Univesity of Phoenix will close 115 physical locations, 25 of them main campuses. Growing revelations in the media, such as the article that follows, have made the public aware of Phoenix's and other "universities'" aggressive recruiting, and poor post-grad employment that leaves alumni deep in unpayable debt.

The reputation of American universities, long viewed as the best in the world, is being befouled by the cancerous growth of for-profit colleges that saddle students with crushing debt in return for very little of marketable skills.

At a time when our youth are told that a college education is indispensable to their hope of ever finding a job, the for-profit colleges pursue the young like gulls following fishing trawlers, encouraging them to take on debt they cannot afford to pay. This predation takes the form of eating our young.

The schools do not issue that debt; they just cash the checks, which is what has caused a stampede to create some 2,000 colleges that now account for 13% of all students, up from 3% ten years ago, most by large corporations and even private equity and hedge funds. The loans — about 80% of them — are from the federal government. And if the student cannot pay? The U.S. taxpayer will eventually pick… Read More »


Why Are We Making a College Education Unaffordable? »

The endless rise in tuition threatens the nation’s future Feb 16 2012

If America is to compete successfully in the global economy, it must have a better educated workforce. One would expect we are doing everything possible to make a college education available universally.

Not quite. The federal government does much to make that happen — Pell grants, Perkins loans, Stafford loans — but does so in conflict with unrelenting tuition increases by our colleges and universities that pull in the opposite direction. Combined with a… Read More »

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Obama Seeks to Cut College Costs »

But government and the education industry love the money Sep 12 2013

His plan to attack the runaway cost of a college education sounded grand on its first hearing in a speech in late August, but it then came clear that President Obama must intend for it to never happen — or so a glance at its timetable indicates. The scheme would award more government funding to those institutions that deliver greater value to their students according to a national rating system that the government would develop. But the criteria making up

the ratings won’t even be decided until 2015, and his plan is to ask Congress to link them to student aid wouldn't take effect until 2018, after he has left office.

sticker shock

Over the last 30 years, the cost of a college education has risen by three times the rate of inflation while household income rose only 16%. The sticker price last year averaged $39,520 for private non-profit colleges and $17,860 for public colleges. The net cost of tuition, fees and room and board after financial aid and tax credits were deducted reached an average of $12,110 for in-state students at public four-year colleges and $23,840 at private non-profit institutions. In the last decade that has meant a rise from 23% of a median family’s income to 38%.

So students have had to borrow. Debt per student doubled over the last 15 years leaving the average student owing $26,000 on graduation day. A decade from now over 50% of them will still have outstanding loans when they enter their early 30s.

spending spree

Colleges have spent lavishly to… Read More »


Triggers and Micro-
aggressions, the New Campus Curriculum »

A coddled generation wants everything "safe" Sep 16 2015

We have returned this from over two months ago given what has been happening on campuses since.

Three American military servicemen sprang to action and subdued a terrorist wielding an AK-47, a handgun and a box cutter on a train from Amsterdam to Paris, preventing what could have been a slaughter.

At almost the same time, two West Point graduates completed the grueling 61-day (at a minimum) U.S. Army Ranger training ordeal as the first women ever to do so.

Sounds like America has bred another generation of courageous and resolute character that we can be proud of, doesn't it? Unfortunately, a very different breed seems to be coming along, found in the next slice of that generation that is now in college.

Education is meant to prepare us for the world. The college environment should teem with clashing ideas and ideals, stimulating curiosity and openness to discovery, teaching students to stand on their own, to think, to discourse on what they have learned, to debate controversial topics.

Instead, we hear of "triggers" and "trigger warnings" and "microaggressions" and a new obsession with "safety" on the part of students who have turned highly aggressive themselves in their demands that perceived affronts be penalized and suppressed. "Triggers" are occurrences — words, passages in literature, historical facts, etc. — that might upset certain people, and campus groups have seemingly sprouted everywhere to demand that "trigger warnings" appear in course descriptions and their syllabuses to protect the unaware.

This new ultra-sensitivity is viewed as the re-emergence of the "politically correct" dictates that scolded free speech in the late ’80s and early ’90s and — everything now requiring partisan labeling — is considered a liberal movement. Jonathan Chait writes in an essay in New York magazine that "Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate".

Some examples

A Muslim student at the University of Michigan wrote write a satirical column that spoofed the culture of taking offense at everything that he said pervades the campus. In so doing he had created a “hostile environment,” in which at least one staffer at the university newspaper, the Michigan Daily, felt threatened. When he refused the demand that he write a letter of apology to the staff, the Daily fired him, and women students littered his doorway with splattered eggs and hate messages such as "Everyone hates you, you violent prick".

Four students wrote to the student newspaper at Columbia University objecting to a class discussion of Ovid's “Metamorphoses” they'd heard about from another student who said she was a survivor of sexual assault. The epic poem recounts the imagined history of the world with depictions of violence, sexual assault and the mythological rape of Persephone and Daphne. The professor's focus "on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery" as opposed to the violence had "triggered" the student who "disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation" because "she did not feel safe in the class". "Like so many texts in the Western canon", the four wrote, "it contains triggering and offensive material" that "can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background". They relayed an idea from another section of the Literature Humanities course that students ought to be able to substitute their own choices of what to read. Toni Morrison, for example.

Peggy Noonan, Reagan speechwriter and columnist at The Wall Street Journal, is having none of the Columbia whinge. "I won’t name the four undergraduate authors, because 30 years from now their children will be on Google, and because everyone in their 20s has the right to be an idiot".

The Sexual Assault Task Force at Brown works to make the university a safe place for rape victims, insulated from anything that might trigger memories of trauma. This alone says a surprising amount of student encounters there are viewed as rape. Anyway, the announcement of a debate about campus sexual assault between the founder of website feministing.com and a libertarian who was likely to call this a “rape culture” set off alarms. The task force got Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, to stage a simultaneous competing talk to provide “research and facts” about “the role of culture in sexual assault”. And for those uncomfortable with both approaches to the subject, a “safe space” to which to retreat would be provided.

To explain, Judith Shulevitz, who writes on feminism, culture and science at The New York Times was told that students want their colleges to have "safe spaces" to protect them from discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. The safe room at Brown, she was told, is equipped "with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma". The place was used by a couple of dozen people during the lectures who felt "bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” said one student.

Former Barnard president Judith Shapiro called this a reinforcement of students' “self-infantilization”. For their fragility, they've been given the name "snowflakes". Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote in Slate that universities cosset students more than in the past because today’s undergraduates are more juvenile. “Perhaps overprogrammed children engineered to the specifications of college admissions offices no longer experience the risks and challenges that breed maturity”, he wrote. Back to examples:

At the end of last year, law school students at Harvard petitioned their administrations to delay exams in consideration of those "traumatized" by the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., and the choking death of an unarmed black man on Staten Island, NY. If they did not delay, Harvard would "allow the systematic underperformance of a great many students of color and allies" because "we cannot walk away from our pain". Law students at Columbia and Georgetown universities made similar requests. This prompted media comments along the line of, wait until they see what it is like to practice law on the outside.

At Oberlin, a document warns that Chinua Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart", a novel set in post-colonial Nigeria and widely included in the reading lists of American schools, will “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more”. So if a student has experienced any one of these — say racism in the U.S. — can the student opt-out of reading the book so as not to be exposed to the author's experience with the other triggers — colonialism, religious persecution, etc. — and the dangers endured by people living under the oppressive cultures of other lands? How is the student's understanding of the world advanced if these realities are avoided?

At other colleges, activists demand that a trigger warning be affixed to Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" because of its anti-Semitism and to Mark Twain's American classic, "Huckleberry Finn", because of racism, despite it being a story of the bonding of races. And then there was the Rutgers student who wanted "The Great Gatsby" to be approached with caution because of “suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence”.

Gatsby? Seriously? Will anything escape trigger-warnings? Will course syllabuses be reduced to children's books, or those coloring books in Brown's safe house? A Wall Street Journal columnist calls this sort of college "just a $240,000 extension of kindergarten".

For the few who have experienced actual trauma, avoiding reminders runs opposite to the standard advice, which is that "controlled exposure" offers the best chance of abatement. For others, who are just shying from conflict found in literature or history, this is impossibly delicate. The "Iliad" has vivid descriptions of savage hand-to-hand combat and agonizing death. But to hide from these accounts is both to stay ignorant of mankind's world thousands of years ago and to pass by one of the greatest poems ever written. Missing out should be the trigger warning.

When they step out into the world, how does this new breed of student expect the world to re-order itself as they demanded in the comfort zone they created at college? "They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled", said Shulevitz. Life will offer opportunity and freedom, but also jarring exposure to ignorance and bigotry and confrontations that require a spinal column. "What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce?", ask Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt at The Atlantic

avoidable hurts

Microaggressions are mostly different from triggers, although one wouldn't think so judging from a sit-in staged at UCLA to protest microaggressions, one of which was the offense committed by a professor who corrected a student who spelled "indigenous" with an uppercase I. His "lowercasing the capital I was an insult to the student and her ideology", the group claimed.

It gets weirder: A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced "The Vagina Monologues" would no longer be performed, partly because that would be a microaggression for those women in the audience not possessed of vaginas.

Microaggressions are the small, and often as not, unintentional slights that can occur between students of different backgrounds. The more typical microaggression is something said in conversation when one student inadvertently hurts another. While that sounds just like the hyper-delicacy of the triggered, making students aware of certain sensitivities is its own contribution to a young person's education.

We came upon an example that made this clear. Phillips Academy, the prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, usually referred to as Andover, boasts of a student body of "youth from every quarter" and backs up that claim with a current enrollment from 45 states and 38 countries, 42% of color, and about half of whom get need-blind financial aid — a mix that, apart from the kids being homogeneous in smarts, prompted the headmaster to say that, "This is the most diverse environment that most of these kids will ever live in". That makes for a compost in which the youths need some training to make them aware of the very different backgrounds that have raised up those who are now their peers. This Andover website lists close to three dozen slights reported by students which makes a good case that microaggressions are real and, more important, that making all these examples apparent to a student body in all-school assemblies could go a long way toward advancing understanding, consideration and tolerance that could hopefully carry forward into life.

weaponization instead

But rather than emerging with a new-found worldly sophistication, too often, students have gone on to seek out microaggressions to deploy as weapons, on the lookout for items in their college courses they can use against faculty. And some universities — those presumed citadels of free speech — have caved in, joining their persnickety students by ruling against the use of certain terms in classrooms that might upset those who must always be guaranteed a "safe space".

Janet Napolitano was Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security and is now president of the University of California. From her desk came instructions to deans and department chairs advising against use of certain phrases such as, “There is only one race, the human race” because it eradicates “the significance of a person of color’s racial/ethnic experience and history”, or “America is the land of opportunity”, virtually a motto but which we are now told could be taken as “People of color are lazy and/or incompetent and need to work harder”. This coming from the same university whose Berkeley campus was the scene of the demonstrations and sit-ins on the nightly news by students ardently fighting for free speech in the 1960s.

The University of New Hampshire went all out for fear of offending Latino students. Avoid the word "American", says the school's "Bias-Free Language Guide", because that assumes the U.S. is the only country in the hemisphere. Say "U.S. citizen" instead.

faculty on edge

A college professor sent an article to Vox.com in June titled, "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me". He wrote under a pseudonym, which proves his point. Fearful for their jobs, he and his colleagues comb through the material they assign to students, pruning whatever could send a student complaining to the dean that he or she has been offended. He quotes Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis who wrote, "Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated". At Brandeis University a professor was pronounced guilty of racial harassment, denied a hearing and assigned a monitor in his classes after he criticized the use of the word “wetbacks” in his Latin American Politics course.

Nicking a student's feelings or making them feel "unsafe" in the presence of uncomfortable thought, however appropriate to the course they are taking, "can now get a teacher into serious trouble", says the Vox contributing professor. How could a professor now dare say “affirmative action is racist”, despite that being the point of affirmative action. He writes a blog, and when some liberals called him paranoid, he said, "I guarantee you that these people do not work in higher education, or if they do, they are at least two decades removed from the job search".

So what's going on here? The answer is a reversal of college-student roles. College administrations now kow-tow to the students; one hears the word "customer". It's those soaring tuitions, eagerly paid for by government-issued student loans, that the administrators want to make sure keep coming. Those "academic freedom" spouting professors had better get out of the way.

And as for how the students got that way and what is on its way, we have this in a letter to the Journal: "If you think the college students of today are 'snowflakes', wait until you see what is next. Thanks to all of those helicopter moms who raised snowflakes, we now have the Apache Helicopter Moms who swoop down and fix everything for their children. As an elementary school teacher, I see this on a daily basis. Students aren’t held accountable for anything, and parents are continually making excuses for their behavior.


The Intractable Student Loan Mess »

Sending the bill to the taxpayer Apr 20 2015

Student loan debt has reached crisis proportions and shows no sign of abating. It has reached $1.16 trillion, according to the New York Federal
Reserve, with $31 billion added in the 4th quarter of last year alone. The aggregate is more than credit card debt and auto loans and is exceeded only by home mortgages. Incentives on all sides have seen to a situation that has veered out of control.

National policy is to create a college-educated public and a globally competitive workforce, so it is not too great an exaggeration to say that the government willingly loans money to any student, of any qualification, to take any course, at any school, at any price.

Colleges and universities have been overjoyed by this arrangement. With the government willing to pay whatever is the going rate, the rate has been going ever upward, causing borrowing limits to rise so that students can borrow ever more to pay the higher tuitions.

Then there is Congress, which charges interest on the loans. Those just starting out in life are viewed as a kind of profit center for the government, with vigorous opposition to lowering the rates. The base rate was once an indefensible 6.8%, was reduced to 3.4% in 2013, but is on the rise. Depending on who is the borrower and the degree sought, current rates run from 4.66% to 7.21% — this at a time in which banks can still borrow from the Fed at close to 0%.

Students earn their share of blame by spending their loans on courses that simply interest them — what The Weekly Standard neatly summed up as "trendy classes on race, class, and gender" — but are of no interest to employers. If they graduate, they too often have earned their degrees in fields with limited employment prospects or that don't pay enough for them to retire their debt.

the due bill

In 1993 that debt for the average undergraduate on leaving college was $9,300 (inflation-adjusted). But the quartet of players above has combined to produce an expected debt load of $35,000 for the student leaving college this year (his or her parents may have borrowed a good deal more). Even if our student were able unfailingly to pay about $200 a month, that amount, borrowed at the lowest 4.66% rate, would still take nearly 25 years to pay down, interest having added some $20,000 to the principal.

softening the blow

There was a leniency provision put in place during the Clinton administration when the federal government was only in the business of guaranteeing student loans made by banks. Loan repayments were limited to 20% of net income after deducting an allowance for living expenses, and any balance after 25 years of payment was forgiven.

With the banks and the economy weakened by the 2008 crash, a bill amending the Affordable Care Act ended the bank guarantees, turned the Education Department a direct lender to students, cut the maximum payment from 20% to 10% no matter how much was owed, and cancelled debt after 20 years rather than 25.

As tuition rose and the burden for students worsened, President Obama made further changes — a more generous deduction for living costs reducing the income subject to the 10%, and wiping clean remaining debt after only 10 years for persons working in "public service" (liberally defined) and not even requiring them to declare the forgiven balance as effective income for tax treatment. Steam rises about that one from the editorial desk at The Wall Street Journal — the special treatment accorded by Obama to those whom the writers pointedly call "aspiring community organizers" and "do gooders".

slowing the flow

As if fighting against the colleges and the Congress for the harm they have visited on students, the administration offers additional ways to mitigate payments. If a student returns to college for additional courses or an advanced degree, payment on prior debt is suspended. A benefit called "forbearance" is freely granted by loan-servicing companies; it suspends payments for as long as three years from debtors who can show simply that their payment to income ratio is problematic. Forbearance can be granted even after a few payments have been missed, and it wipes the delinquency slate clean. Debtors have flocked to this avoidance option; already, payments on $125 billion in loans are in suspense under the forbearance plea.

Interest is accruing all the while, of course, so by taking advantage of forbearance or other deferrals, students add to the ultimate debt they owe, or that will be left to taxpayers to pay come 10 or 20 years when the debt is cancelled.

Three years ago, when the administration provided an estimate, $41,000 was the average amount of debt forgiven under the income-based repayment plans.

check isn't in the mail

These many easements have caused the number of loans in default to gradually decline — by 1% between 2013 and 2014 — to the current level of 13.7%. But loans can be delinquent for nine months before they are counted as being in default and in addition, as BloombergBusinessWeek points out, roughly half of loans are in some form of payment deferment which, for a sizable portion may be hiding difficulties in making payments.

The 13.7% also is presumably measured against the full universe of student loans, which includes active students from whom no payment is as yet due. If measured against loans that have come due, the default percentage rises to an alarming 19.8%, says a Journal op-ed citing the Education Department as its source. That's 7.1 million borrowers with $103 billion in balances outstanding.

The bill for forgiven debt or default is sent to the taxpayers. There will then be the fundamental unfairness that those who never had the opportunity to go to college could find themselves paying for those who did, and those who did will be paying twice.

the for-profit plague

By far the most serious pathogen in the student loan contagion are the for-profit colleges, which we covered some time ago in a story titled "For Profit Colleges — A National Disgrace". The scent of easy government money that students can indiscriminately spend set large corporations, private equity and even hedge funds baying in the chase to fund any outfit that calls itself an educational institution. Some 2,000 self-proclaimed colleges sprung up, willing to accept any applicant waving proof of a loan.

The outcome has been that, while the for-profits account for only 12% of students, they account for nearly half of all loan defaults. Only 32% of students stay to graduate from the four-year programs, earning degrees viewed as inferior by employers. The other two-thirds drop out with nothing to show for their mistake but a debt that Congress has made sure cannot be discharged in bankruptcy court. Of 21 institutions that last fall were running default rates so high that they could lose the right to accept federally issued students loans, 20 of them were from the private, for-profit ranks.

what's the answer?

Certainly the greatest failing has been the willingness to pay any price with the result that colleges and universities gleefully raised tuitions to draw in more money. Indeed, they even compete for students, bidding for superstar professors who are promised they will barely have to teach, and adding so-called "amenities" from welcoming dormitory rooms to food courts that accommodate the latest fetishes. The student of fifty years ago, when Spartan rooms were minimally heated and certain dishes served up in the dining hall were awarded unprintable names, would be stunned by a visit to a campus of today.

The loan system let this happen, with students and taxpayers the ultimate victims, by not restricting loan amounts to force down tuitions. Fed by perverse incentives, college tuitions soared by 79.5% in just the ten years between 2003 and 2013, says the Labor Department. Compare that to the 43.1% rise in medical costs and the 26.7% increase in the consumer price index. This has been going on unchecked for decades. Since 1978, tuitions have risen by 1,225%, nearly twice the rate of health care costs.

The Obama administration is developing a rating system meant to staunch the flow of student loan dollars to poorly performing schools. First announced in 2013, its ratings criteria are scheduled to be announced this summer. But progress has been slowed by factions holding their self-interest higher than that of our youth.

College administrators are of course up in arms, fearful of being made accountable for what they produce. And enter the politicians. The Republicans who are outraged at the bad debt write-offs of the administration's loan forgiveness programs are the same as those opposed to any federal oversight of education that might cure the problem. Democrats are concerned that inferior colleges in their districts might see less money and fret about what might happen to liberal arts programs.

The ratings criteria are no easy matter and a subject on their own — our educational system should not be based solely on whether graduates get jobs — but some scheme is essential to shut off parasitic operations that only dupe students and harm their lives.

But these fixes have to do with eliminating waste and fraud in the programs in place. Of greater concern is how the country should think of the role of higher education going forward. Once again, America is an outlier in a world that places a much higher value on education. To be sure its youth is educated, Europe believes college should be essentially free, with tuition costing just a few hundred dollars, as seen by scrolling through this website. High taxes pay for it. The U.S. has gone in the opposite direction, with heavy tax cuts across the board, except for a few percentages added recently to the topmost brackets. The conservative right wing equates taxes with socialism and preaches a free market doctrine that believes that our universities should be at liberty to charge prohibitively, blocking millions from a higher education and saddling the rest with a debt that can take much of their lives to repay. An Obama proposal for free community college has been hooted down, and to be fair, was probably too hastily considered given the damage that would do to funds and applicants at four-year universities. Some think education should be entirely free.

All of which says that we have not really considered what the answer should be.


How to Increase Prospects for Low-Income Kids »

And catch up with the rest of the world in the bargain Jan 30 2014

The commentariat is already calling the president a lame duck, as if deciding we should just drift for the remaining 1,000 days left in his second term. But when Barack Obama stepped to the podium for his fifth State of the Union address, he showed firm intent to get things done and, as expected, expressed his desire for fixing two key failings of America’s approach to education that sap the nation’s strength: lack of early education of pre-kindergarten (pre-K) kids and the poor job colleges do in finding gifted kids among the lower rungs of our society.


"Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child's life is high-quality early education", he said, asking Congress to "get this done". What gave the pre-K movement a boost was the release last fall of the international PISA scores. Every three years the Program for International Assessment tests 15-year-olds around the world in reading, math and science. The U.S. results were dismaying: 26th in math, 17th in reading, 21st in science.

Kids from affluent families score higher. The problem is with children of low income households who suffer from low exposure to language and learning from the moment they are ready to talk. Poorly educated parents pass along their own shortcomings. Early education… Read More »


What Have We Got Against Students? »

Sticking our young with 6.8% interest in a 1% interest world Jul 10 2013

At a time when the United States has slipped to second tier status in so many categories, a time when the nation desperately needs a better-educated workforce, why are we making it as difficult and costly as possible for students to get a college education?

A number of factors, not least of which is the rise of tuition charges by our irresponsible colleges, have created the crushing burden of debt borne by those who wanted a college education. Exacerbating the problem is a whopping 6.8% interest rate on Stafford loans imposed by Congress. That rate may have been defensible at the time, but the wise solons didn't think to build in flexibility to reflect fluctuations in the market place, so in the new era of 0% interest rates, students and grads are stuck with comparatively usurious interest charges.

Congress' solution was to cut the rate in half — to 3.4% — for two years running, and kick the can down the road. Once again, we've caught up with the can. The year has expired, and Congress went off for a their two week 4th of July vacation, allowing the rate to revert to 6.8% on July 1 for 7.4 million university students. Counting graduates and borrowers from other sources — commercial and government — the debt load has… Read More »