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State of the Union 2015: Higher Ed (Updated)

State of the Union 2015

The annual State of the Union Address is a key aspect of the political spectacle of the modern Presidency. While the SOTU is actually a codified mandate in the U.S. Constitution, only in the 20th Century has it become a regular (and now annual) speech delivered to Congress — previously it had generally been a written document sent and read by a clerk. While the first broadcast SOTU was Calvin Coolidge's in 1923, via radio, the Address' central position in American political life was cemented with the first TV broadcast of Harry Truman's speech in 1947.

It's in these addresses that Presidents announce new policy goals, attempt to shore up public support, try out new narrative and rhetorical frames to shape the political landscape for the coming year, and in most cases, assiduously avoid going into detail.

When it comes to Higher Education, the U.S. Federal government plays a much more hands-off role than most other nations. Because Federal support of public higher education has always assumed state establishment, regulation, and control (starting with the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890), much of what can be done at the Federal level has to do with funding. What little rule-making is done is usually in the context of eligibility tests for funds (like the atrocious Solomon Amendment).

The usual suspects in Federal higher ed policy debates are loan and grant programs — Pell, Stafford, Perkins, PLUS, etc. Proposals often deal with them at one or both ends: how much the students get, and how much they have to pay back. While there is usually tweaking of the size of Pell grants or Stafford Loans, nobody expects them to approach the percentage of tuition cost that they once did. One modest improvement enacted in 2010 is that Pell grant increases are now automatic, and pegged to the rate of inflation + 1%. That being said, Pell grants are now limited to 12 full-time semesters (down from 18), and the maximum award of $5,730 will now only be automatically granted is your family income is below $23,000 (down from $30k). In addition, for graduate students, Stafford Loans will no longer be subsidized (i.e. accrued interest is no longer waived during your time in school or during deferment). Bad news for the students who need financial support the most.

However, the biggest policy shift over the past six years has been the expansion and refinement of the Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR). For those who can enroll, IBR caps loan payments at a percentage of your income and forgives whatever's left on the loan after a certain number of years (notably this does not apply to private loans, which can be the harshest burdens of all). As of right now, for most with student loans, IBR is capped at 15% of your income over 25 years. Congress changed that, so starting in 2014 the cap is now 10% of your income over 20 years.

Since this site is called "For Student Power" after all, I feel obligated to point out that issues of power and governance never, ever come up in higher ed policy, and certainly never in a rhetorical event like the SOTU — except in the shallowest of forms, consumer power.

2015

Given recent proposals, we can make a reasonable guess as to what will be said tonight.

As he announced it earlier this month, President Obama's signature higher education proposal will likely be his push to make two years of community college tuition-free. Under this plan, the Federal government would pay for 75% of tuition provided that states chip in the rest. Students have to keep a GPA of at least 2.5 and be enrolled part-time. This tuition assistance would be in addition to Pell grants, so students would be able to use Pell money to pay for other education-related expenses: things like books and transportation, but not off-campus housing (which is what nearly all community college students have). All this — roughly $60 billion per year — would be funded by new taxes on the top 1% of earners.

But of course, there's a lot more to the pricetag of community college than tuition. As Chris Hicks at Jobs with Justice points out:

Four out of 10 community college students graduate with an average of $14,000 in student loans, and more than 20 percent of these graduates will wind up defaulting on those loans. [...]

Tuition only makes up about 21 percent of the cost of attendance (or $3,347 in the latest academic year, according to the College Board). Instead, the bulk of the costs facing community college are actually spent on housing ($7,705), books ($1,328) and transportation ($1,735).

And the requirements placed on community colleges have been kept vague. What the White House means by "Colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes" remains to be outlined, and this would be a big means of imposing horrendous corporate-style ed reform currently dominating K-12 education across the country. Bill Gates has said that community colleges are great places for his kind of reform, in large part because faculty are almost entirely adjunct — there's very little to keep administrators from making whatever drastic changes they want. Pushing universal standardized tests on all colleges was a dream of the Bush Administration, and similar moves are being attempted at the state level. Be on the lookout for "accountability" being posited as a solution to every ill, from high tuition costs to low graduate employment.

While any tax increase (arguably anything at all) that Obama proposes will likely be DOA given the Republican-controlled Congress, the President did float several targeted education-related tax cuts and credits, including making Pell grant money tax-free (read more about them here). It's possible some of them may pass inside a larger GOP bill as a "sweetener" to pull in Senate Democrats and the White House. Given the improbability of its passage in the next two years, one has to wonder aloud why Obama launched this proposal, which seems tailor-made to excite his base, at such an electorally inopportune time. Wouldn't it have been more useful to propose this — or something even more ambitious — before November 2014?

UPDATE: Here's President Obama's 2015 SOTU address. Here are the higher ed passages below — nothing surprising:

That’s why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.

Forty percent of our college students choose community college. Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt. Understand, you’ve got to earn it — you’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time. Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible. I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today. And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.

For reference, below are the relevant SOTU passages about higher ed for the last six years:

2014:

The Joining Forces alliance that Michelle and Jill Biden launched has already encouraged employers to hire or train nearly 400,000 veterans and military spouses.  Taking a page from that playbook, the White House just organized a College Opportunity Summit where already, 150 universities, businesses, and nonprofits have made concrete commitments to reduce inequality in access to higher education – and help every hardworking kid go to college and succeed when they get to campus.

Five years ago, we set out to change the odds for all our kids.  We worked with lenders to reform student loans, and today, more young people are earning college degrees than ever before.

We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career. We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education. We’re offering millions the opportunity to cap their monthly student loan payments to ten percent of their income, and I want to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt. And I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.

2013:

Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges. So those German kids, they're ready for a job when they graduate high school. They've been trained for the jobs that are there. Now at schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this.

Through tax credits, grants and better loans, we’ve made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years. But taxpayers can’t keep on subsidizing higher and higher and higher costs for higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure that they do.

So tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria -- where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.

2012:

Jackie Bray is a single mom from North Carolina who was laid off from her job as a mechanic. Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training. It paid Jackie’s tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant.

I want every American looking for work to have the same opportunity as Jackie did. Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My administration has already lined up more companies that want to help. Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, and Orlando, and Louisville are up and running. Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers -– places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.

When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July.

Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves millions of middle-class families thousands of dollars, and give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.

Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid. We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.

Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who’ve done just that. Some schools redesign courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it’s possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can’t be a luxury -– it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.

Let’s also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge: the fact that they aren’t yet American citizens.

2011:

America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us – as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

Of course, the education race doesn’t end with a high school diploma. To compete, higher education must be within reach of every American. That’s why we’ve ended the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that went to banks, and used the savings to make college affordable for millions of students. And this year, I ask Congress to go further, and make permanent our tuition tax credit – worth $10,000 for four years of college.

Because people need to be able to train for new jobs and careers in today’s fast-changing economy, we are also revitalizing America’s community colleges. Last month, I saw the promise of these schools at Forsyth Tech in North Carolina. Many of the students there used to work in the surrounding factories that have since left town. One mother of two, a woman named Kathy Proctor, had worked in the furniture industry since she was 18 years old. And she told me she’s earning her degree in biotechnology now, at 55 years old, not just because the furniture jobs are gone, but because she wants to inspire her children to pursue their dreams too. As Kathy said, “I hope it tells them to never give up.”

If we take these steps – if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they’re born until the last job they take – we will reach the goal I set two years ago: by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.

Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love. And with that change, I call on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC.

2010:

Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families. To make college more affordable, this bill will finally end the unwarranted taxpayer-subsidies that go to banks for student loans. Instead, let’s take that money and give families a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college and increase Pell Grants. And let’s tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only ten percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after twenty years – and forgiven after ten years if they choose a career in public service. Because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college. And it’s time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs – because they too have a responsibility to help solve this problem.

2009:

Because of this plan, families who are struggling to pay tuition costs will receive a $2,500 tax credit for all four years of college. 

In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history.

And half of the students who begin college never finish.

This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.  That is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education – from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.

We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students.

And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.  This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.  But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.  And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.  It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.  That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal:  by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education.  And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask this Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country – Senator Edward Kennedy.

 

 

Obama's Whack-a-Mole Approach to Higher Ed

Yesterday, in the middle of a packed auditorium at SUNY's Binghamton University, President Obama laid out a number of proposals aimed at reforming the U.S. system of higher education.

You'd be forgiven for a sense of déja vu, as the ideas Obama discussed have been brought up before, notably in his 2012 State of the Union Address (which I covered here). The difference this time is that the Department of Education has had another year and a half to flesh out the details.

The Administration has lumped together these otherwise scattershot reforms into three categories:

Pay Colleges and Students for Performance

  • Tie financial aid to college performance, starting with publishing new college ratings before the 2015 school year.
  • Challenge states to fund public colleges based on performance.
  • Hold students and colleges receiving student aid responsible for making progress toward a degree.

Promoting Innovation and Competition

  • Challenge colleges to offer students a greater range of affordable, high-quality options than they do today.
  • Give consumers clear, transparent information on college performance to help them make the decisions that work best for them.
  • Encourage innovation by stripping away unnecessary regulations.

Ensuring that Student Debt Remains Affordable

  • Help ensure borrowers can afford their federal student loan debt by allowing all borrowers to cap their payments at 10 percent of their monthly income.
  • Reach out to struggling borrowers to ensure that they are aware of the flexible options available to help them to repay their debt.

Please, I encourage you to take a look at their expanded bullet points to get a better idea of what they mean.

Rather than go point-by-point, I'd like to weave some of these proposals into a bigger picture.

Pay-for-performance has a long history in American K-12 education — a history riddled with failure and unintended consequences. First students were evaluated by test scores, then schools were evaluated by their students' test scores, and now teachers are evaluated by their students' test scores. The results have been disastrous: students' lives are dominated by test prep, budget-crunched schools cut arts and music programs that aren't included in standardized tests, and teachers are forced to throw pedagogy out the window because their very livelihood is based on their students' scores (often competing with their colleagues for job security and pay raises). And now it's heading to higher ed.

The obsession with quantification is a shackle generously gifted to us by titans of finance and industry, along with their allies in elective office. Just as employees should be measured by the quality of products they churn out, teachers and schools should be measured by quality of students they churn out. But students aren't products: an insight lost on economic elites, who can't seem to wrap their heads around the idea that even their own employees aren't expendable tools. Those teachers and schools who miss the mark on standardized tests are given the boot, to be replaced with charters or vouchers to private schools.

Quantification goes hand-in-hand with competition: once we've assigned everyone a number, why not force them to fight over scarce resources? That'll clearly improve everyone's performance!

The administration is vague on details about what criteria the ranking and funding will be based upon, but they throw out a few possibilities:

  • Access, such as percentage of students receiving Pell grants;
  • Affordability, such as average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and
  • Outcomes, such as graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates.

Okay, so judging from these three criteria, we can surmise that the White House wants universities that do well by poor students, keep cost to the student low, and send off lots of graduates who will then be successful in the real world.

Seems reasonable, right? In fact, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a significant number of university presidents or state legislators who would tell you that they disagree with that goal. Then again, Wal-Mart executives wouldn't disagree with wanting businesses to treat their employees well and support their local communities, either.

So where's the disconnect?

Much of it stems from how modern liberals think institutions work, and how government can influence those institutions to achieve popular goals. Because those who are making higher ed decisions are often those least affected by them, there is a perennial disconnect between what is done and what should be done. University administrators and trustees more interested in prestige than affordability will squander millions of dollars on monuments, buildings, and landscaping, all the while feeling bad about having to raise tuition, cut tenure-track positions, and outsource staff. "If only we had more money," they sigh.

All the problems that the President outlined are correct: from tuition, to student debt, to graduation rates. But his solutions, far from being game-changers, are the definition of what he said he wanted to avoid: "tinkering around the edges." They're all incomplete and indirect measures to nudge institutions in a certain direction. And as any health insurance or finance executive can attest, regulations were made to be avoided and rating systems were made to be gamed. ObamaCare mandated that most employers provide insurance to full-time employees. What do employers do? Cut employees' hours down just enough to avoid the requirement. Congress puts an end to checking account overdraft charges? Banks add new fees elsewhere.

So long as the underlying logic of the institutions remain the same, we'll continue to play whack-a-mole, expending untold amounts of time and energy to put half-measures into place that they'll find a way to avoid. No matter how well-constructed (which very much remains to be seen), a brand new Federal college ranking system will likely introduce just as many distorted outcomes and incentives as the justly-maligned U.S. News & World Report rankings, outcomes and incentives that will need to be addressed by yet another round of regulations and reforms.

Our public universities don't need money with strings attached to it, right now they just need money. The staggering reduction in funds to higher education on the part of state legislatures has to be reversed: divvying up the budgetary equivalent of tablescraps to competing institutions, like Obama's "Race to the Top" program, is a recipe for short-sighted, desperate policy changes. Students don't need more manageable debt, first they need less debt: make it dischargeable in bankruptcy.

Funding aside, that the government has to force institutions to do what reasonable people think should be done anyway suggests not a lack of carrots and sticks, but a deeper institutional dysfunction. Can we envision a bank that is designed with the fundamental goal of not shitting on its customers? Just go down the street to your local credit union. Can we envision a business intrinsically designed to keep worker safety and well-being a top priority? Just visit your nearest worker cooperative. Can we envision a university that's first and foremost responsive to the needs and interests of students and faculty? Absolutely, but it'll look different from just about everything we have, and these proposals won't get us there.

Here are some other analyses of President Obama's proposals you should take a look at:

 

The New Student Loan System: How Screwed Are We? [UPDATED]

"The word bipartisan means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out." — George Carlin

To great establishment fanfare, the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act has now passed both Houses of Congress, and should be signed by President Obama shortly. [UPDATE 1: President Obama has signed the bill.] This new law changes the previous regime of fixed interest rates and allows them to float — to a certain degree.

Now, the interest rate on your student loan will be set at whatever the 10-Year Treasury bill rate is, plus a fixed percentage. Here's the percentage breakdown, with the caps on how high the interest rate can get:

 Type of Loan Previous Rate New Rate Cap
Undergrad Stafford subsidized 3.4% (6.8% as of July 1) T-bill + 2.05% 8.25%
Undergrad Stafford unsubsidized 6.8% T-bill + 2.05% 8.25%
Grad Stafford 6.8% T-bill + 3.6% 9.5%
GradPLUS/Parent 7.9% T-bill + 4.6% 10.5%

You'll remember the great wailing and gnashing of teeth around the July 1 rate hike, particularly on the liberal/progressive side of the debate, when the 3.4% interest rate expired. It was a very similar to the wailing and gnashing of a year before, when the 3.4% rate was originally scheduled to expire. But because 2012 was an election year, we saw a very different outcome: both Obama and Romney came out in favor of extending the interest rate another year, and it passed both houses easily.

This year, without the pressures of a Presidential campaign, Congress let July 1 come and go without a fix. Given how malleable deadlines are with a legislative body that can pass laws with retroactive effect, as they did in this case, apocalyptic cut-off dates seem to have much more to do with public perception of lawmaking than with lawmaking itself.

Based on how low the T-bill rate is now, that means undergrads get a halfway decent deal this year: 3.86%, only slightly up from where it was before July 1st. However, there's a problem. The T-bill rate is not just low, it's historically, ludicrously low. The yearly average T-bill rate for the past two years has been so low that you'd have to go back to 1941 to find another that low. That means that the 3.86% rate will be gone very soon: according to rough CBO estimates, we could very likely see T-bill rates of 5.2% in 2017, which would bump up the interest rate of undergrad loans to a painful 7.4%.

While past results are no guarantee of future performance, it is the best benchmark we can go by. I've pulled together these stats, along with what the average student loan interest rate would have been over the past 20 and 30 years, had the new law been in effect then. The results aren't pretty (see the infographic below).

17 of the most reliably progressive and pro-student members of the Senate voted against the bill, along with 25 mostly progressive Democrats and 6 Republicans in the House. It makes one wonder why progressive student-oriented groups like Generation Progress (formerly Campus Progress) and Rock the Vote pushed so hard for the passage of a bill that 1) will make the student loan crisis worse, 2) will do nothing to help those straining under the $1.2 trillion in debt already out there, and 3) was hailed by Speaker Boehner as "almost identical" to what the House GOP wanted.

Perhaps it's because they're not democratically accountable to actual students? The United States Student Association's newly elected President, Sophia Zaman, has come out very publicly against it. [UPDATE 2: Kalwis Lo, Leg Director for USSA, co-penned a favorable statement about the bill's passing, in an apparent reversal of position. I imagine there's an interesting story behind this move.]

Some say that this is just a temporary stopgap, meant to help students now but will be fixed soon (some say as soon as this fall, when the Higher Education Act is up for renewal). Do we really need to remind these folks of the "pass it now, fix it later" slogan used to get progressives behind the Affordable Care Act? As Jon Walker put it:

Inertia is an overwhelming force in Washington. Things rarely get improved later even when politicians say improvement is needed. That is why it is so important to fight to get the design right to begin with, or we end of living with the design flaws for a very long time.

Student loan debt infographic

Student Power: Policy Recommendations

Look, anyone who reads this blog (or follows me on Twitter, hint hint) knows I'm not a big fan of diverting organizing capacity toward legislative vehicles, let alone elections. We can't legislate or elect our way to a more democratic society, nor to a stronger student and youth movement.

That being said, there are a myriad of policy changes that can happen on the state level that can make the lives of student organizers much easier. I'm leaving off the "abolish all tuition and fees" and "hand all decision-making power over to general assemblies" kind of policies, because they're both obvious to us and entirely off the table for legislatures at this point.

There's a middle ground, however, of policy changes that can help us do our jobs better that aren't completely outside the current realm of possibility. A lot of these regulations can and should be applied to private universities as well — while they're not formally public entities, states already have reams of regulations private schools must adhere to, as conditions attached to either funding or certification. And depending on the state, some of these recs can be done at a regulatory level and don't even need the legislature's approval.

Transparency

  • Publicly available, detailed budgets for all private and public institutions
    The best that most students can hope for in both private and public universities is a vague, unhelpful summary of revenue and expenses. Getting a firm handle on university finance is important

  • Publicly available vendor contracts
    Usually vendor contracts are set up by their own terms to be confidential, only state law can override those clauses and mandate public access.

  • Publicly available reports of endowment investments
    Key for investment/divestment campaigns, along with sniffing out conflicts of interest among trustees.

  • All trustee and regent meetings for all private and public institutions held publicly
    Pretty straightforward.

Power

  • Authorize university employee and graduate student unions
    Also straightforward. Though we've seen recently how quickly legislators can roll back these rights — there is no substitute for an active and militant university union movement.

  • Mandate all student activity fees are exclusively under student control
    Universities love to give students control over their own activity fees, until students start doing something actually interesting with them. Mandating that a democratic, student-run organization such as a student government/association/union has final say over the use of those funds would ensure a potentially powerful asset in organizing campaigns.

  • Treat students like human beings
    That could be in the form of a state-based DREAM Act, Good Samaritan rules to allow students to safely get medical attention to someone who's overdosed or blacked out, abolishing the use of "free speech zones" that restrict student activity to a few square feet, etc.

  • Strict restrictions limiting campus safety/police use of lethal and “less-than-lethal” weapons
    One of the biggest differences between student protest now and in the 60s is the obscene level of police violence activists are subjected to today. It's a huge hamstring to any productive confrontation with campus administration.

  • Strict restrictions of campus safety/police activity during protests, occupations, and sit-ins
    Same as above.

  • Popular elections of trustee/regent boards
    This is a bit of the more "out there" proposals, but there are thankfully many examples of constituent representation on university boards — student and faculty reps on boards aren't a totally new idea. As a result, expanding their presence, even if not to 100%, is a lighter lift than it would otherwise be.

Funding

  • Guaranteed funding streams for universities with automatic increases each year
    Legislatures in many states can set automatic funding for programs, without having to reauthorize it in every budget. There's no magic bullet that fixes higher ed without greatly increasing state (and Federal) allocation to it.

  • Ban the siloing of funds from academic or research profits
    There are huge profit centers at universities, especially public research schools like UCLA, that are contractually required to keep their profits in-program. This is especially evident with biotech and defense firm research projects — profits and royalties that those programs get above and beyond their operating costs can't be redirected into needier programs.

  • Deprioritize new facility construction
    Universities are taking out massive loans on new construction projects, many of them little more than vanity projects to recruit more affluent students, while ignoring the funding needs of actually teaching students. That debt is driving many of the fiscal crunches we're seeing at schools across the country. The best policy to deal with this would likely vary from state to state.

  • Bar any state scholarships from being used at non-public universities
    State scholarship money should go to students who go to state schools. Most of us realize the problem with voucher schemes at the K-12 level — state scholarships to private universities are essentially the higher ed equivalent. And given the lower price of state universities and community colleges, states are getting more graduates for the buck.

  • Establish a system for states to directly lend to students on more favorable interest and forgiveness terms than Federally-subsidized loans
    There are already campaigns across the country to set up state banks like the lone Bank of North Dakota. Offering very low-interest student loans with generous deferment/discharge options would be a pretty straightforward prospect for a state. They could even use it to keep graduates from moving elsewhere, promising lower interest rates or partial/complete forgiveness if students live and work in-state for x years.

What other policies did I miss? Hate that I've now become a bourgeois reformist sellout? Head to the comments!

Suppose they formed a Party and everyone came? (and other fantasies)

Thoughts on Bhaskar Sunkara's "Fellow Travelers" in the latest Jacobin.

Roughly 50% of small businesses close shop in their first five years. While not attracting enough customers is a death sentence for a business, not attracting enough members sadly does not have the same effect on leftist parties. They shamble on, zombie-like, hollowed out yet still adorned with the ambitious banners that swaddled their birth. Or maybe they're better described as so much detritus on the forest floor, choking off the green sprouts of their successors, waiting for a cleansing brushfire that never comes. In any case, what doesn't describe them well is anything approaching "successful."

Which is why I was somewhat surprised to see Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara trod down this worn path so enthusiastically in his latest essay, "Fellow Travelers." Go read it if you haven't.

The allure of a kind of Grand Unified Theory for the left is as old as the left itself. Depending on your predilection, it might take the form of One Big Union, or the One True Worker's Party, or the One True Organization That Looks Like a Party But Totally Isn't, You Guys. Sunkara actually describes the problems of the sect-ridden left quite well:

But it’s impossible to deny that institutionally the socialist left is in disarray, fragmented into a million different groupings, many of them with essentially the same politics. It’s an environment that breeds the narcissism of small differences. In a powerless movement, the stakes aren’t high enough to make people work together and the structures aren’t in place to facilitate substantive debate.

It's a good point, and one that would cause most members of those million groupings to nod vigorously. Because, of course, everyone reading it assumes that their organization is the one that everyone else should come to their senses and join. He continues,

It’s finally time to make a call for joint action on the Left with an eye towards the unification of the many socialist organizations with similar political orientations into one larger body. This idea has been trotted out for generations, but new agents and desperate necessity can finally make it a reality.

Trotted out! I see what you did there, Bhaskar. Indeed, the ISO's Socialist Worker has published one variation or another of this theme in a fairly continuous stream since their first issue. But the biggest issue I have is that the last sentence in the above quote should really be what the entire essay is about. In what way is it finally time that's different from previous times? For those who already think we need one more go at it, this essay doesn't break new ground. For those who are skeptical, it doesn't offer any explanation why it might now play out any differently.

An additional wrinkle is that many existing socialist organizations don't seem the least bit amenable to the kind of "non-sectarian organizing under the auspices of an overarching democratic structure" that Sunkara hopes for. There is no compelling reason why socialists will suddenly stop splitting over irrelevant crap; the absence of the USSR has certainly helped in that regard, but that's nothing new.

I'm skeptical that socialist groupings will play well together — let alone merge — when their higher-ups can't even manage to do well by their own members. The UK's biggest revolutionary socialist group, the Socialist Worker's Party, has virtually imploded due to their (democratically centralized) leadership's utterly incompetent and disgusting reaction to charges of rape and sexual assault laid against one of the Party officials. The fact that the party's head, in the face of accusations of cronyism and unaccountability, pens a rebuttal titled "Is Leninism Finished?" speaks volumes.

Sunkara is dead on, however, when he critiques the left's insularity and lack of "social literacy to speak to a broader audience, a literacy that comes with a grounding in practical politics." Though the best innovations in approachable left outreach and framing don't ever seem to come from the usual socialist suspects. In the bubbling cauldron of improvisation that epitomized the best of Occupy Wall Street and its satellite movements, the best signs weren't the ones printed in all-caps, typeset in Impact and produced by the hundreds (I noticed that those were almost always the first to clog nearby garbage cans). The simplistic yet memorable class war slogans based on "We are the 99%" always drew more interest and attention than "Marx is Back!" or clumsy "do x, not y" formulations like "Jail Wall Street Bankers, not Jobless Youth" (often with a last-minute Free Mumia and/or Palestine addendum to round things out). Traditional socialist groupings were caught just as off-guard and flat-footed by the popularity of OWS as their Québécois counterparts were by the red felt festooned printemps érable.

Sunkara's bookend for this essay is a metaphor of leftist sectarian as subway masturbator. To put it lightly, there were better metaphors to pick from, ones that don't merit a trigger warning just to get one's point across. For example: here in Boston we get our share of itinerant preachers on the T, shouting the Good News. They annoy everyone, including those with the same faith, and thankfully they eventually move on to the next car after a few stops. That'd be a good metaphor for the sectarian left, brandishing not a bible but What is to Be Done, or Quotations from Chairman Mao. The vast majority of men who masturbate in public aren't modern day Lennie Smalls, mentally incapable simpletons over whom we can just look at each other and smile knowingly when they do something inappropriate. They're predators, and should be treated as such. They're people whom everyone, but especially the left, should aggressively oppose and confront. It may seem to some like a small quibble (if so, fuck you), but as I think Sunkara would agree, words matter.

(And by the way, a Left Forum even half the size, scope, and fun of Comic Con would be a huge win for the left, if only to see the inevitable Žižek cosplayers.)

The 2013 State of the Union Preview: Higher Ed

For Student Power will be covering the SOTU live, via Twitter and Facebook. Join in!

The annual State of the Union Address is a key aspect of the political spectacle of the modern Presidency. While the SOTU is actually a codified mandate in the U.S. Constitution, only in the 20th Century has it become a regular (and now annual) speech delivered to Congress — previously it had generally been a written document sent and read by a clerk. While the first broadcast SOTU was Calvin Coolidge's in 1923, via radio, the Address' central position in American political life was cemented with the first TV broadcast of Harry Truman's speech in 1947.

It's in these addresses that Presidents announce new policy goals, attempt to shore up public support, try out new narrative and rhetorical frames to shape the political landscape for the coming year, and in most cases, assiduously avoid going into detail.

When it comes to Higher Education, the U.S. Federal government plays a much more hands-off role than most other nations. Because Federal support of public higher education has always assumed state establishment, regulation, and control (starting with the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890), much of what can be done at the Federal level has to do with funding. What little rule-making is done is usually in the context of eligibility tests for funds (like the atrocious Solomon Amendment).

The usual suspects in Federal higher ed policy debates are loan and grant programs — Pell, Stafford, Perkins, PLUS, etc. Proposals often deal with them at one or both ends: how much the students get, and how much they have to pay back. While there is usually tweaking of the size of Pell grants or Stafford Loans, nobody expects them to approach the percentage of tuition cost that they once did. One modest improvement enacted in 2010 is that Pell grant increases are now automatic, and pegged to the rate of inflation + 1%. That being said, Pell grants are now limited to 12 full-time semesters (down from 18), and the maximum award of $5,500 will now only be automatically granted is your family income is below $23,000 (down from $30k). In addition, for graduate students, Stafford Loans will no longer be subsidized (i.e. accrued interest is no longer waived during your time in school or during deferment). Bad news for the students who need financial support the most.

However, the biggest policy shift over the past four years has been the expansion and refinement of the Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR). For those who can enroll, IBR caps loan payments at a percentage of your income and forgives whatever's left on the loan after a certain number of years (notably this does not apply to private loans, which can be the harshest burdens of all). As of right now, for most with student loans, IBR is capped at 15% of your income over 25 years. Congress changed that, so starting in 2014 (and for a select few qualifying students, right now) the cap will be 10% of your income over 20 years.

One danger that looms on the horizon for higher ed is the potential importation of the horrendous corporate-style ed reform currently infecting K-12 policy across the country. Pushing universal standardized tests on all colleges was a dream of the Bush Administration, and similar moves are being attempted in at the state level. Be on the lookout for "accountability" being posited as a solution to every ill, from high tuition costs to low graduate employment. 

Since this site is called "For Student Power" after all, I feel obligated to point out that issues of power never, ever come up in higher ed policy, and certainly never in a rhetorical event like a SOTU — except in the shallowest of forms, consumer power. Sure, we all rolled our eyes when Mitt Romney told students to "shop around" as a solution to the tuition and debt crisis. But how much better is Obama's vision? "Shop around — and here's a coupon, too." The closest he ever got to tackling tuition itself was the hilariously backward idea that universities should lower their tuition or face a reduction in federal funds and subsidies: a kind of punishment one could very well imagine a vulture capitalist like Romney coming up with.

There are lots of policies Obama could propose that actually would improve students' lives and create capacity for greater power. For example, he could mandate that student activity fees must be exclusively under the control of student-elected and -governed bodies (a hard-fought right that has steadily eroded away over the past few decades). Hell, that'd even help him and his party at the polls, since student governments and their larger associations often do a ton of voter registration and GOTV.

As for what Obama will say tonight, we can only guess — but to help us make an educated one, below are the relevant SOTU passages about higher ed for the last four years:

2009:

Because of this plan, families who are struggling to pay tuition costs will receive a $2,500 tax credit for all four years of college. 

In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history.

And half of the students who begin college never finish.

This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.  That is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education – from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.

We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students.

And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.  This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.  But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.  And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.  It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.  That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal:  by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education.  And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask this Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country – Senator Edward Kennedy.

2010:

Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families. To make college more affordable, this bill will finally end the unwarranted taxpayer-subsidies that go to banks for student loans. Instead, let’s take that money and give families a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college and increase Pell Grants. And let’s tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only ten percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after twenty years – and forgiven after ten years if they choose a career in public service. Because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college. And it’s time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs – because they too have a responsibility to help solve this problem.

2011:

America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us – as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

Of course, the education race doesn’t end with a high school diploma. To compete, higher education must be within reach of every American. That’s why we’ve ended the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that went to banks, and used the savings to make college affordable for millions of students. And this year, I ask Congress to go further, and make permanent our tuition tax credit – worth $10,000 for four years of college.

Because people need to be able to train for new jobs and careers in today’s fast-changing economy, we are also revitalizing America’s community colleges. Last month, I saw the promise of these schools at Forsyth Tech in North Carolina. Many of the students there used to work in the surrounding factories that have since left town. One mother of two, a woman named Kathy Proctor, had worked in the furniture industry since she was 18 years old. And she told me she’s earning her degree in biotechnology now, at 55 years old, not just because the furniture jobs are gone, but because she wants to inspire her children to pursue their dreams too. As Kathy said, “I hope it tells them to never give up.”

If we take these steps – if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they’re born until the last job they take – we will reach the goal I set two years ago: by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.

Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love. And with that change, I call on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC.

2012:

Jackie Bray is a single mom from North Carolina who was laid off from her job as a mechanic. Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training. It paid Jackie’s tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant.

I want every American looking for work to have the same opportunity as Jackie did. Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My administration has already lined up more companies that want to help. Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, and Orlando, and Louisville are up and running. Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers -– places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.

When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July.

Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves millions of middle-class families thousands of dollars, and give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.

Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid. We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.

Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who’ve done just that. Some schools redesign courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it’s possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can’t be a luxury -– it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.

Let’s also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge: the fact that they aren’t yet American citizens.


For Student Power will be covering the SOTU live, via Twitter and Facebook. Join in!

Obama's "Fighting for Scraps: Higher Ed Edition!" (Updated)

Obama and Arne DuncanAs anyone with an eye on the world of electoral politics has seen, because this is an election year we've been seeing "Candidate Obama" much more often. The Candidate Obama stage is about the only time the Democrats' liberal base gets a few bones thrown to it (it's a shame he wasn't up for re-election in 2010 - we might have gotten a halfway decent healthcare bill). 

In a bid to re-energize the university student vote, President Obama made quite a few pledges and proposals around higher ed in his State of the Union Address. The crux

Join me in a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My Administration has already lined up more companies that want to help. Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, Orlando, and Louisville are up and running. Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers – places that teach people skills that local businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing. [...]

When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July. Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves middle-class families thousands of dollars. And give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.

Of course, it's not enough for us to increase student aid. We can't just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we'll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down. Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who've done just that. Some schools re-design courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it's possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can't be a luxury – it's an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.

A few thoughts.

Review of DEFAULT: The Student Loan Documentary

I left higher ed with roughly $50,000 in student loans. That debt, by way of the sometimes staggering monthly payments, has restricted where I can live, what I can do as a career (and specifically what kind of jobs I can afford to take), and what I can do with my free time.

That particular $50k was thanks to one single year of law school. One.

I was one of the lucky few as I left college -- I had zero student loan debt, a combination of commuting from home and tuition remission thanks to my father's faculty position. I had grand visions of walking in the footsteps of other radical lawyers, who eschewed the limousines and corner offices (and 100-hour work weeks) and instead used the law to at best help (at worst, mitigate the harm to) those most beaten down by the powers-that-be.

LSE is Occupied! An Interview

2010 LSE Occupation

On December 2nd, students at the London School of Economics and Political Science occupied the Old Building on campus, demanding the Administration take a stand against the looming education cuts coming from Parliament. I chatted with occupying LSE students Isla Woodcock ('11), Emma Kelly ('12), and Alice Stott ('13).

FSP: So first off, what's the overall mood in the building right now? What are folks doing?

LSE: Very positive. The events team are drawing up a schedule for the week, others are drafting our statement.We're all ecstatic about getting official union backing this afternoon after a vote!

FSP: Yes, I read that! How much organizing for the occupation itself was done under the auspices of the student union? Or was it more of an independent grouping of student activists?

Marcus Epstein Karate Chops His Way to Racist Superstardom

Oh, Marcus. Washington Independent:

On July 7, 2007, Marcus Epstein had too much to drink and stumbled onto Georgetown’s scenic, shop-lined M Street, walking in no particular direction. At 7:15 p.m., he bumped into a black woman, called her a “nigger,” and struck her in the head with an open hand. An off-duty Secret Service agent was watching. Epstein “jogged away,” according to the agent’s affidavit, and when Epstein was finally chased down, he “continued to flail his arms while being taken into custody.”

And that wasn't just any strike - the U.S. Attorney's office called it a "karate chop." He's scheduled to be sentenced on July 8 (OnePeople'sProject has a slew of scanned court documents). He was originally charged with a hate crime, but pled it down to assault. SPLC's Hatewatch lays out what Epstein has coming:

He faces a maximum punishment of 180 days in jail and a $1000 fine. He’s under a restraining order to stay away from the couple involved, has agreed to seek mental health treatment, complete an alcohol treatment program, write a letter of apology to the victim and donate $1000 to the United Negro College Fund.

Marcus Epstein, racist karate chopper for Tom Tancredo and Pat Buchanan$1000 to UNCF? That's got to sting. How many times will you have to mow David Duke's lawn to make that back?

So who is Marcus Epstein, anyway? Oh, where to begin...

Dubbed "the man who seems to be vying for the World's Second Darkest White Supremacist" by OnePeople'sProject, Epstein is a frequent writer for far-right outlets like Human Events, The American Conservative, The Washington Examiner, the anti-semitic Taki's Mag, and racist/anti-immigrant sites like VDARE. He's also linked with the founding of the white nationalist Youth for Western Civilization (started by his good friend Kevin DeAnna).

He also does his fair share of legwork for the far right: Epstein founded the Washington DC Robert Taft Club (yes, the Taft of Taft-Hartley infamy) which often features white supremacist speakers, is the executive director of Tom Tancredo's Team America PAC, and runs Pat and Bay Buchanan's The American Cause.

Memorable Epstein quotes:

"Diversity can be good in moderation — if what is being brought in is desirable. Most Americans don't mind a little ethnic food, some Asian math whizzes, or a few Mariachi dancers — as long as these trends do not overwhelm the dominant culture." [source]

"A number of Miami's boosters, including Time Magazine, have dubbed it 'The Capital of Latin America.'

But why are Americans supposed to like this?

Even the Cuban immigrants, still preponderantly white, law-abiding, Republican-voting, affable people are not desirable if they don't assimilate. Perhaps a few Little Havanas are manageable in a huge country, just as many Americans may see a few isolated Chinatowns as an exotic novelty. The problem is when the Little Havanas become Big Havanas and the Chinatowns become Chinacities or even Chinastates." [source]

Looking at a tapestry in Ethiopia:

"It's no Sistine Chapel, but you know what Samuel Johnson said about a Dog walking on it's hind legs." [source]

Here's what Samuel Johnson said: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Not so tough when not on the interbutts, are you Marcus? When you attack people of color in real life, your internet buddies and Stormfront trolls aren't there to back you up. I'm glad more and more people linked with Youth for Western Civilization are pulling out their fasces for all to see.

UPDATE: I don't know how I missed this; looks like UVA Law un-accepted him. Well, there's always Liberty University Law, right?

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