Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Time with Teachers-- or What I Did on my Summer Vacation

I am a tenured professor, and this is July of my first-ever sabbatical.  According to many critics of higher education, I am currently sunning my buns on the shores of Bermuda, sipping cocktails and snacking on brie while the taxpayers labor at home to pay my salary.

On the contrary. I've just returned from a three-day trip to Indianapolis, where I joined more than 85 members of the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County spending their unpaid time participating in AVID Summer Institute. Furthering their effort to get more students on track to college and career, these teachers and administrators spent their days actively focused on learning new pedagogical practices and acquiring new tools to bring home and put into place by fall.

They are nothing short of remarkable.

As we traveled to and from Indianapolis on a couple of big busses, sat in school team meetings around big conference tables, shared breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and waited in line for coffee, I got to talk with more public school teachers than I've ever encountered before in my life.  I listened closely to their casual conversations, hoping to gain insight into the sources of the laziness and ineptitude I've heard so much about. I waited to hear the voices conveying the soft bigotry of low expectations of their students, especially those students of color.  I watched and waited for them to doze off, unengaged as always in their work.

Ha!  As if. Let me tell you what these folks talked about, nonstop.

  • How to help the dozens of students for whom there isn't sufficient space in their under-funded, high-demand programs
  • How to spend adequate time with the long lines of students seeking help--now--at the end of each class period, while still making it to their next class
  • How to balance the desire to get involved in new programs while also covering their existing teaching loads
  • How to talk to parents about college possibilities without making them feel like failures if they could not afford to send their kids
  • How to explain to administrators why those chose to take on the "hardest cases" even though it would be "easier" to leave them behind
  • How to cope with racism in their communities without getting angry, so that they could help their students do the same
  • How to integrate innovations like AVID into their practice as they also cope with the Common Core, how to do it efficiently, and how to help others do the same
I compared notes with these teachers and found that compared to this university professor, they work very comparable hours, receive far more professional development and critique, have much less autonomy, and get paid but a fraction of what I earn.  I'm boggled that we can sleep at night knowing that we do not invest more in ensuring they will continue to do this hard work and are rewarded for it. I'm stunned that people pay so much money to higher education professors while demanding so little in the way of training, professional development, and evaluation of pedagogical practice in return. 

My time with teachers was one of the best moments of my summer.  My time with teachers was just the beginning.  In three days they made me their pupil.  I will continue to learn. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Comments on "Racial Segregation Patterns in Selective Universities"

Peter Arcidiacono of Duke University has been publishing a steady stream of papers examining the role of race in college admissions, with a particular focus on the effects of affirmative action.  I've discussed his work on this blog before, and given the substantial attention that generated, I'm sharing thoughts on another relatively new piece.

In the new paper, Peter and his colleagues suggest that friendships among students attending selective universities are no more likely to be interracial in composition than friendships in high school.  Of persistent racial segregation, they write:

"This is particularly true for blacks where on average their share of friends who are of another race is no higher in college than in high school despite their colleges having a much smaller share of black students than their high schools. However, the extent of interracial friendships, both before and during college, vary significantly depending on academic preparedness. The percentage of black friendships that are same-race is lower for those with SAT that are relatively low given the college they attend. Ordered probit estimates of the number of friends of different races show that, within a college, increasing one's own academic preparation makes inter-racial friendships with blacks less likely while increasing friendships with whites and Asians.

The multiple waves of friendship reporting ... tell a story of substantial racial isolation among blacks that slightly increases over time. Despite only comprising eight percent of the Duke student body, Black students report on average that 68% of their friends are black during their freshman year, a number which increases to 72% in their senior year. Ordered probit results again suggest that friendships with other races are more likely to occur the more similar one's academic preparation is to those of other races.

Taken as a whole, our results suggest that similarity in academic background is an important
determinant of interracial friendship formation. That black friendships are no more diverse in college
than in high school, despite blacks being substantially less-represented in their colleges, points
to a potential cost of a ffirmative action. Namely, by introducing a mismatch between academic
backgrounds of di fferent groups, interaction between these groups is discouraged."

I have several concerns with how the authors reach their conclusions and the policy implications they draw.

1. Their assumption seems to be that where educational settings have fewer black students, those students will be more likely to have interracial friendships.  Why expect this and not the opposite?Couldn't scarcity lead to a survivalist instinct to focus on key friendships among people who might seem to come from similar places?

2. The (very modestly) increasing isolation of the black students at Duke could be due to any number of factors, including campus racial climate. In this paper there are no tests for competing explanations other than academic mismatch. And the authors make nothing of the increasing segregation of white students from black friends as well- the % of white students with black friends as freshmen falls from freshman to senior year.  Moreover, the biggest increases in isolation are among Asian students-- as freshmen, 41% of their friends are Asian, but by senior year that is up to 48%.

3. There is no evidence that the observed relationship between academic "mismatch" and friendship composition is causal. It is quite a leap to suggest that racial segregation of friendships directly results from affirmative action.  In other words, there is little overlap between the empirical tests in this paper and the policy conclusions.  The authors conclude the paper with some words that suggest they know this-- and yet they make the policy statement in their opening abstract with direct and inflammatory language, stating that affirmative action plans "drive a wedge between the academic characteristics of different racial groups" creating problems for friendships.

4. The authors do not explain what their intended alternative policy might be.  Without affirmative action there would be fewer minority students on campus at all-- given their concern with friendship integration, what would the authors suggest happen then?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Will the Campuses Crumble? A Dream of the Future involving Detroit, Mad Men, and Samuel Clemens

This post is authored by R. Thomas, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

There’s a lot of talk these days about university reform, and coursing through it I see a beautiful and tragic dream of the future.  Dreams, of course, meld idiosyncratic images and mine blends Detroit, Mad Men, and the great speeches of Samuel Clemens. 

We all know the story: Boosters of online education suggest that American higher education should rely upon a small group of superstar lecturers, computer-based grading systems and thousands of adjunct graders to deliver content to the masses. To benefit from economies of scale, some say we ought to have centralized national committees that decide what gets taught and who gets to teach it. Advocates claim online education will cut costs, improve educational outcomes, and bring higher education to underserved populations.

Such efforts carry the excitement of novels for me. As in Mad Men, the details of work and visions of the future are riddled with action and curiosity.  Much of the drama, of course, comes in waiting to see what will happen. Will we break social hierarchies, educate every American, and revitalize a lagging economy?  On the job front, will employers readily hire people with online degrees?  Will we create an exceptionally creative and dynamic economy with online education or add to the legions of overeducated and underemployed young people? And what will happen to the humanities, challenged as they are to bring engaging discussion online? Will they be too expensive to deliver and thus rendered irrelevant?   Finally, how will professors respond to these online reform efforts? Some Harvardprofessors have pushed back against EdX, but will they succeed? 

Of course, as in Mad Men, many of the characters are compelling and hard to ignore. Most players pursue admirable aims, while a few see profit at every turn. Technical wizards test the boundaries of possibility on a daily basis. Finally, for intrigue, we have one prominent voice whose book describes his genius and 6’8” stature as well as his passion for greater access.  And don’t forget the eminent MOOC professorwho aped Wal-Mart management when asked to address his responsibility to the academic community. Finally, I’m sure if we looked hard enough, we'd find plenty of romance.
Woven through this drama are the fantastic lectures of Samuel Clemens. In the future, students will have nothing but the most exciting, engaging, and informative professors. We've all had amazingly inspiring teachers but also think of the dull ones: the ones that mumbled, yawned, or trailed off into empty confused space, blankly staring back at their audience of students. With MOOCs everyone will be taught by Samuel Clemens. Just as he regaled audiences around the world with stories of adventure and love, dynamic professors like Ann Swindler and Harold Scheubwill turn tedious degree requirements into something exciting, engaging, and memorable.  University education will be as entertaining as it is informative. Students will have not just a few memorable professors but rather four consistent years of intellectual challenge, adventure, and stimulation. Graduates will emerge with minds polished sharp and appetites expecting the best. Why shouldn’t universities be as good as multiple seasons of Mad Men?  Perhaps they will be…

However, the specter of Detroit and other post-industrial cities looms just out sight, haunting these dreams.  Walking around campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison the place would seem to last forever. Grand and bland buildings alike bustle with life, looking impenetrable to change. Construction never stops and thousands of eager applicants are rejected each year. And yet, I imagine this same assurance was felt by workers in Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee during the 1950s and 60s. On their evenings off from Pittsburgh steel plants, my grandparents drove new cars around a dynamic city, stopping here to eat an ice cream or there to dance the jitterbug.  On weekends, they strolled down crowded Braddock Avenue for Catholic mass and later Sunday brunch. All of this is gone of course. Much of Pittsburgh, like Detroit, is a wasteland. Braddock Avenue is an icon of post-industrial America, its crumbled buildings photographed as ruin porn. My grandparents’ cathedralsnow have collapsed roofs, and the mansions of the elite lean on dilapidated foundations, smiling back with broken windows. 

Will lecture halls, our hallowed cathedrals of learning, sit dormant, fade, and eventually crumble to the ground? Of course they will.  Why should a thousand different sociology professors teach Introduction to Sociologyevery fall when the best professors from Berkeley, Princeton, Yale and UNC-Chapel Hill could take turns teaching to the entire country?

Will universities become internet-photo-curiosities, idle distractions from work-a-day routines? It’s quite possible.  As undergrads, friends and I explored abandoned amusement parks along the Jersey shore, photographing roller coasters and conjuring various ghosts creeping through fun-homes and tunnels-of-love.  You may have explored other ruins, forgotten castles or asylums perhaps.  It’s easy to imagine wealthy young people doing the same years from now, walking around abandoned campuses with overgrown grass and broken windows.  They will photograph the collapsed arches of our lecture halls and wonder what it was like to sit for an hour in those hard wooden chairs.  They’ll do their best to envision crowds of students rushing to class. 

Like any good historical drama, this dream’s actors are vividly human, their efforts creative and disturbing. Such a future is exciting and beautiful, but it is also tinged with tragedy. Poised as we are on the brink of a new future, you can almost see Samuel Clemens watching us in white with a bushy mustache, smirking, “Never let the campus get in the way of your education.”

Monday, July 15, 2013

What Constitutes "Satisfactory Academic Progress" in the 21st Century?

I often receive email from students who've learned of my interest in the contemporary college experience and want to provide a window into their own.  Recently I heard from a man who initially enrolled at UW-Madison in 2007 and subsequently took an educational pathway that is increasingly normal.  His efforts to find ways to learn new things and make college affordable are notable, and he challenges us to think about the ways in which traditional forms of higher education align with today's students.  With his permission I'm sharing a letter he wrote, and at his request, I am identifying the author.  The following essay is by James Kasombo, who will be re-entering Madison this fall. 

            Upon graduating from high school in the top five percent of my class, being ushered into the university's honors program, and finding a wholeheartedly welcoming dormitory community off the shores of Lake Mendota, in many respects it felt as though I had made the rightful transition for my life. Granted, no guidance counselors had openly foretold the high costs of a college degree versus the varying returns on investment different majors would create. There was an intense barrier of advanced math and science within the initial semesters of post secondary education if one were to pursue careers in medicine or engineering, stymieing the aspirations of many gifted students having streaked through their K-12 schooling. Convening each night in the communal bathroom to brush our teeth, the floor community would reflect on the day's lectures, discussion groups, and assignments with strikingly different opinions of how this task at hand, that of earning a bachelors degree, was making an impact on our development into adulthood.

            And so it was halfway through the fall semester of 2007, shortly after TED had started an ameliorative experiment of freely posting talks from its conferences on the internet, that I stumbled upon Sir Ken Robinson's now transformative argument for how we look upon education to prepare adults for an unknown future. At that same time, I had successfully tutored a cohort of students through a philosophy midterm, yet failed a calculus exam, and watched as more and more fellow teenagers began the process of withdrawing from their studies altogether.  

            “Students must successfully complete a cumulative 2/3 (67%) of all credits for which they enroll.” Over the course of my three years living in Madison, I would not meet this standard. Instead, I became the youngest person on a team of New Student Leaders for the university's summer orientation program after my freshman year, receiving high marks for engaging with incoming students and relating with the parents who would be sending children their children away. Instead, I produced the Marcia Légère Student Play Festival during my sophomore year. Organizing amateur playwrights, directors, and actors, who would collaborate with drama & literature faculty to create a student driven performance, lead to my reception of the Union Trustee Leadership Award from the Memorial Union Building Association. Instead, I attained an internship with the nation's eleventh largest library system by way of ISIP. Instead, I served as a resident assistant at Highlander House for Steve Brown Apartment's Campus Connect program during my junior year, and also happened to help the UW Model United Nations team win an award at AMUN.

            During those years I would enroll in classes and later withdraw because I did not or could not see a clear connection between my then liberal arts program of study and tangible, substantial opportunities in the labor market. This symptom is seen across the board of postsecondary education as the idea of 'college for all' has collided head first with the reality of costs increasing by sixty percent just over the last decade. Meanwhile, our parents have made zero gains in their income. State institutions of higher learning have watched their funding reduced (such asUW-Madison losing almost ten percent of its budget by way of state taxes, in the space of five years) for the sake of propping up quite arguably the end products of disjointed education,health care and incarceration. Sure, our access to credit was [inappropriately] increased, but in my gut the idea of student debt becoming the new normal was a recipe for disaster: too many college students of today needing to cover growing gaps in their funds by both working and borrowing.

            By the summer of 2010 I had fully withdrawn from the university, personifying yet another data point of those failing to gradate within six years. But as I explained to my parents, it was an opportunity to experience for myself the visceral chasm between my skill set, what I really needed from a college education, and the careers needed to traverse the gap between low skill/low pay work and the upper middle class of the contemporary American economy. Of course, that very summer I would fracture my jaw, requiring surgery covered by my parent's health insurance, and spend several months recovering. This became an all too vital introduction into the treacherous alliance of employment and health we must accept when determining survival, in every sense of the word. Later that year I worked for a luxury hotel in downtown Madison, experiencing significantly higher wages than hotel employees across the capitol square. Being so young and green with employment, it took detailed explanation from the union's representative for me to understand the power of organized labor in service jobs. Yet, I would still fall behind on paying rent, and in lieu of eviction, would move back home to Milwaukee in the spring of 2011.

            Over the following two years I would obtain six different jobs, four of which being full time, with transitions in between being of my own volition. I'd witness the leveling effects the world of retail has on human capabilities. The often direction-less management had detrimental impacts on workers who'd show up day in and day out for the sole task of feeding their kids, and paying interest on loans taken in pursuit of a lifestyle they couldn't afford in the first place. Whether it be a warehouse, bookstore, or banquet hall, I have seen with my own two eyes middle skill laborers becoming prisoners of circumstances, chiefly byway of technology+globalization's effect on productivity. And so, when I was given an opportunity to leap from the role of an hourly worker to that of a manager, I knew my journey into the mindset of real world workplace dynamics was about to become complete. Therefore, in the spring of 2012, I was hired as an assistant manager for a children's museum in downtown Milwaukee, and within a few months was promoted to manager of the visitor services department. This professional experience would finally validate a core reason I stepped out of college and answer the question: Minus the credential of a B.A., did I possess qualifications and life skills necessary to build a fulfilling career?

            At the age of twenty four, I had a job nearly any college graduate of our time would figuratively kill for, management in the non-profit sector. Indeed, I savored every ounce of responsibility placed in my hands, from carrying keys to open the facility, being in a select group of people with safe access, overseeing all front desk operations, handling inventory of the gift shop, to supervising a staff of part time employees and being on the forefront of children's safety & wellbeing. Acting as a hiring manager, looking over the resumes of those jockeying for a job that paid minimum wage yet required significant skills, bringing on those flexible enough to work mornings and weekends, then getting to know the lives of those who would be reporting to me, was an extremely humbling endeavor. Working alongside adults ten, twenty, thirty years my senior with strengths and flaws more seasoned than mine, yet being treated as an equal peer, was wholly invigorating. Yet, after almost a year of sixty hour work weeks, treating injured toddlers, consoling distraught parents, and stressing over six figure budgets, it became apparent that while the answer to the preceding question may have been yes, the real question I had come to answer was how consequential the vehicle of a college degree is in attaining positions of power, influence, and sensible compensation.

            The College Board has made remarkable statements regarding the relaxation of a high school-to-university model many [academically gifted] students assume is the lock step pathway into adulthood. They've advocated creating admission policies for delayed entry after high school, making withdrawal & re-entry policies as clear as possible, and fostering an environment that understands for some students there comes a time when it is appropriate to take a break in their education, when their talents could better flourish in alternative venues. Sadly, these revelations come from a report written over thirty years ago in 1981, and it's safe to say their recommendations have not become mainstream. Ask any Millennial, and we will tell you that when coming of age, preparation for college and preparation for a vocation are indeed mutually exclusive.  In the space of just one generation, the gap between annual wages for a college degree versus a high school degree has increased from fifteen thousand to twenty-five thousand dollars, mainly because the high school graduate has seen negligible gains. Yet, the chance of someone from the top income fifth staying up there without a college degree is higher than someone from the bottom income fifth reaching the top with a college degree. The overarching fact is for those of us in the middle, a bachelor's degree evenly exchanges the probability of winding up in poverty with that of reaching the top, but odds are you stay in the middle depending on your field of study. In other words, placing a magnificent amount of faith in debt which cannot be discharged for the sake of a credential which inherently doesn't acknowledge the wide variance of human capital, has been the harbinger against completion of my degree ever since discovering voices of educational revolution.

            You know that the college degree is not affordable. Two-thirds of college presidents believe a degree is not affordable for those who need it most.  Unfortunately, federal student aid programs have performed poorly, trying desperately to fund accordingly with merit and income, juggling the balance between institutional subsidies and individual aid. Such struggles are why I have wound up appealing for my aid package. Though, it should be made clear, this is a process I support. Public monies should not be loaned nor spent on causes to which there will be no significant return. But I do hope it is inferred from my writings that my time in school was an incredibly formative portion of my life. Lessons learned inside the classroom transferred directly towards my life as an employee. Leadership positions attained at the university were the linchpin towards my success within stressful situations of the workplace, especially in management. And now, I look to return to Madison with aspirations to graduate in the winter of 2015 with degrees in Computer Science and Philosophy. I've spoken with my advisor as how to organize my classes over the coming semesters. I've gained skills in self discipline and persistence to assure academic achievement. Most importantly, I've gained the real world experience necessary to assure my studies not only relate to career goals, but towards my aspirations of leveling the playing field for those residing within the downside of advantage.

            Rising tides of the American economy do not lift all boats. The college degree has become less a sail, more the life jacket in terms of being buoyed by gains of our free market. My time away from the university was an exercise in coming to terms with this well researched conclusion, thanks to tangible successes and mistakes in real life. Once the goals I have set for myself come to fruition, the resulting tributes will acknowledge a proud alumnus, proponent, and advocate of UW-Madison.

 On Wisconsin!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Building the Best Possible "Pay It Forward" Model for Higher Ed Finance

The last week was swept away by Hurricane "Pay It Forward," a new bill advanced by progressives in Oregon. Starting last Saturday I began engaging via Twitter with folks interested in debating its merits, by Sunday night I was knee-deep in a full analysis, and by Wednesday morning that analysis was published by the Century Foundation and NPR gave me an opportunity to discuss the issues On Point. In between, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to both Barbara Dudley and John Burbank, key architects of the plan. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know both of these incredible activists, and thrilled that they share many of my concerns and end goals.

The number of legislators and members of the media who are continuing to express interest in learning more and building on this plan is amazing.  In a key respect, it's also wonderful: people really want to do something NOW to make college more affordable and reduce student debt.  It's about time!

With that in mind, I strongly suspect that some version of Pay It Forward will be enacted not only in Oregon, but in other states as well, and potentially with federal support.  Thus, setting aside for now my continuing philosophic and political problems with the plan, I'd like to make the following suggestions for making it as effective and progressive as possible.

1. Ensure that it is universal and guarantees repayment.  The only way to make it financially feasible and prevent it from furthering inequality is to reduce the fraction of free-riders.  Allowing wealthier students to pay upfront perpetuates a two-tiered system and likely increases the percent of future earnings that participants will have to pay.

2. Provide the first year of community college for free. This plan could have a really wonderful effect of helping the most financially-constrained students gain a foothold in higher education, but in order to do this the first year must require no repayment whatsoever.  Coupled with the federal Pell Grant, students could make the first year work with no debt and minimal working.  That's worth trying- if we cannot significantly boost enrollment rates with a policy like that, it will teach us something.  It facilitates the creation of advertising campaigns with a real chance of competing with for-profits' effective overtures to the same students.

3. Vary the percentage paid on future income.  Asking the same percentage of income from students with vastly different future income profiles creates a large distortion.  At bare minimum, students attending community colleges and public comprehensives should face a different percentage than those attending selective institutions.  I would go a bit further and increase the percentage paid by people whose incomes fall above the 80th percentile (or something like that) for their age range in the state.

4. Provide incentives for institutions to make better uses of resources. It is imperative that institutions commit to keeping costs down and tuition low. It is not enough to count on student reactions to hold them accountable.

5. Commit the state to increasing per-FTE appropriations over the implementation period.  Tuition must decline in order for Pay It Forward to really increase college completion rates.  States should be required to appropriate additional resources that explicitly require institutions to make better use of resources (see above).

These five changes should help improve the model, but I still view it as inferior to one that utilizes redirected Title IV federal aid and progressive taxation to support a free public option.  There are simply too many free-riders in the Pay It Forward model, affecting both its sustainability and creating some really negative consequences for those in the public sector.  Note that yes, I think higher education generates large positive externalities that compel this country to invest in public higher education.  Reasonable people may disagree- and more research is needed-- but that's at the core of my argument.  I hope when you weigh in, you make your own assumptions just as clear.

Much thanks to Matt Bruenig, Susannah Tahk, Miguel Palacios, and many others for conversations over the last week that have helped me clarify and advance my thinking.  This has been quite a start to my sabbatical!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Time to Make College Loans Dischargeable

This post has been revised following excellent additional information provided by Zakiya Smith of the Lumina Foundation and Rachel Fishman of the New America Foundation. Thanks!

Student debt is the worst possible form of debt in one critical way: it almost never leaves you.  You may be disabled, unemployed, or even dead, but you almost always still have to pay.

This "non-dischargeable"status is said to exist because there is no way to repossess the assets (your education) to pay off the creditors.  But that cannot be the only reason for this extreme rule. Instead, it's another example of putting bankers' needs above those of the average American.

Federal student loans technically can be discharged (while private loans cannot-ever) but it's a very difficult process and almost no one does it. Among those seeking a discharge, about 40% are granted, but only 0.1% of student loan debtors filing for bankruptcy have sought to discharge their loans.  Those who do file and succeed are often poor, unemployed, and having medical problems.  It used to be the case that loans were much more readily dischargeable.  All student loans could be discharged in bankruptcy until 1976. Student loans could be discharged after a waiting period (of initially five and later seven years after repayment was scheduled to begin) until 1998. Federal student loans became nondischargeable in bankruptcy in 1998. Private student loans became nondischargeable in bankruptcy in 2005.   Why not work to once again make both private and federal loans (more) dischargeable?

The pros are obvious -- students drowning in debt could declare bankruptcy and get a fresh start. Certainly their credit would be ruined for a few years, but since many aren't trying to buy homes and it's increasingly the case that it doesn't hurt job prospects, this isn't the end of the world. In addition, lenders might make credit less available, and I tend to think that will help to drive down the costs in higher education (yes, I partly agree with the Bennett Hypothesis).

The cons are less clear, if we put aside the powerful interests of the financial industry .  Would this give students incentive to go bankrupt? Recall that these are people who invested in postsecondary education and thus are actively trying to better their position in the world. They will not take bankruptcy likely, and those who treat it as anything less than a last resort will be a tiny minority (when bankruptcy was the same for student loans as all other loans, far less than 1% of federal loans were discharged this way). In fact, however, bankruptcy is critical in free market economies: it instills a sense of hope in the face of adversity.  In other words, there are both conservative and liberal rationales to support this effort.

So if we are not doing this, we have to admit that it's because we aren't brave enough to strong enough to stand up to the lenders.  An effort to make private student loans dischargeable again was introduced this year in the Fairness for Struggling Students Act and the Know Before You Owe Act and both failed.

Isn't it time for a change?  Can't we mobilize more broadly to advance this right now by pursuing reform in the Senate judiciary committee?

Monday, July 8, 2013

"Pay It Forward" or "Pay It Yourself?"

The evidence is clear: the current system of financing postsecondary education in America fails to match the desire of its people or the needs of this ambitious nation. Growing demand for the education and training that college provides has helped propel millions into public institutions providing postsecondary education, which history predicts would lead to calls for a greater role in the provision of that education. Yet as the fraction of adults enrolling in college has increased, college costs have been transferred from government to individuals. In particular, many state governments have decreased per-student appropriations, slashed the fraction of tax revenue devoted to financing higher education, and done little to contain costs at public institutions. These moves put today’s students and many future generations at risk of significant debt that could compromise their investments in family, education, and work. In true “perfect storm” fashion, this transfer of responsibility has accelerated as educational requirements for stable employment continue to rise, and real family income slides downward.
It is therefore unsurprising that in some states, politically active members of the both the working and middle-classes are objecting to the most visible evidence of this crisis: the ever-increasing amount of student debt. That debt is accrued even after many families pay out-of-pocket for a substantial portion of college costs, not to mention tax payments that go to state appropriations. Coupled with a weak labor market in which employment for bachelor’s degree recipients is slacker in some fields than people might have anticipated, the legitimacy of the current financing system for higher education is being called into question.
While many state legislatures are taking very incremental actions toward change, in a few places political action has been more dramatic. Most recently, in Oregon the legislature rapidly passed a bill called Pay It Forward (HB 3472) that aims to “provide access for all Oregonians to a debt-free degree and protect funding for public higher education. Specifically, the bill directs the Higher Education Coordinating Committee to examine and implement a Pay It Forward pilot program and a tuition freeze.” Pay It Forward is an income-based repayment plan (or what some call a “human capital contract”) modeled on similar efforts in Washington State and California that waives upfront tuition costs for students, instead requiring students to pay up to 3 percent of their income for 24 years to the state (0.75 percent for each year of college attended).  Its authors, who include a long-time progressive activist and numerous students intimately acquainted with the near-impossibility of financing college today, are remarkable people who should be thanked for trying to change the status quo.
But the news coverage of the well-intentioned bill has dramatically overstated its promise, while also revealing a substantial appetite among some constituencies for rapid solutions to these pressing problems. Newspapers across the nation—including the New York Timesand the Wall Street Journal—have given it much attention, and Twitter is bubbling with kudos for the state and its advocacy community. Yet, for many reasons, I think that this bill will fail to live up to the high hopes of people advocating for it, and in the meantime mollify and distract reformers from the hard work involved in finding a lasting solution.  Thus, even though I think that it is critical to find ways to make college truly affordable for all Americans, I cannot support Pay It Forward:
  1. It is probably not feasible. The two most difficult challenges it raises are how to fund the transition costs and how to collect the levy on students’ payroll.  While proponents in Oregon suggest that the $9 billion needed to start the program could be raised through state bonds, they require voter approval and of course also must be repaid.  Moreover once the money is distributed, the state must ensure that students repay.  This will require active participation of the Internal Revenue Service (read: highly unlikely) or substantial work on the part of the state.
  2. It may reduce student debt slightly, but will not eliminate it. This “debt-free” plan only addresses tuition and fees, which amount to about 40 percent of the costs of attendance in public higher education. Students often borrow to cover the remaining costs (room and board, books, supplies, etc.) or have them covered by grant funds.  While Pell recipients might be able to forgo borrowing under this new plan, it is very unlikely that other students will. Moreover, the plan is for students receiving up to four years of schooling, yet barely 50 percent of Oregon students complete a four-year degree in six years.  Thus, it is highly likely that many if not most students will leave college with loans in addition to this repayment obligation.
  3. It has the potential to exacerbate class-based institutional segregation. A similar effort pursued at Yale in the 1970s revealed that wealthy students who achieve high-paying jobs do not like income-based repayment schemes. It is unlikely that times have changed, and wealth-seeking students will have an incentive to move from flagship public universities over to the private sector. If this is addressed by instead, allowing students to opt out and pay tuition and fees up front, the plan will become much more costly.  
These are flaws in the plan’s construction that impede its workability and effectiveness. But the most important reason to reject Pay It Forward is that the plan’s approach distracts from the pursuit of a more effective solution that could benefit all Americans—not just those living in Oregon—and helps to fuel an insurgent mantra among critics of higher education who claim we are over-invested: “Pay It Yourself.”
Student debt today is high because colleges—both private and public—are charging students for non-academic activities, catering to the small number of families who desire an elite social experience for their children. States have not matched massive federal investments in student financial aid, instead capitalizing on an apparent willingness among public higher education institutions to transfer their share to students. In other words, both schools (public, private, and for-profit) and state legislatures are complicit in today’s crisis,and their impulses are not curtailed with Pay It Forward. Instead, the rhetoric of a “debt-free” public higher education serves to satisfy the left, mute the outcries, and distract public attention from an apparently popular desire to broaden access to postsecondary education by making it truly public. 
The Claims That Pay It Forward Provides “Free” Public Higher Education
Before getting into the details of the Oregon bill, let’s review what the policy framing by the popular press might lead the public to believe it can accomplish.
  1. Pay It Forward brings “tuition-free higher education,” at least according to Fox News.
  2. Pay it Forward provides “free higher education the right way” according to Matt Bruenig at the American Prospect, the distinctly other end of the political spectrum.
What is most important about these statements is that while neither is factually accurate, both suggest interest in having more discussion about new ways to bring higher education to more Americans at a lower price. That’s exciting, and the search for good ideas is a worthwhile one.
At the same time, it is critical that policy proposals—if they are to be taken seriously—thoughtfully address both the pragmatic details involved and the full range of possible consequences. Unfortunately, the information put forth to date by the plan’s proponents is short on details and provide little sense of the potential unintended consequences. Given that, it is remarkable (and telling) how rapidly they have been advanced and accepted.
According to the bill passed by the legislature, Pay It Forward students would forgo paying tuition up front, and instead would pay—regardless of whether or not they graduate—a specific percentage of their earnings (depending on how many years they attended school) to the state for 24 years. It is clear that the total amount that most students would pay is greater than if they had paid tuition and fees up front—presumably a pact that many students might be willing to make, in exchange for the lowered payment amounts and longer payment period (a somewhat similar situation to 30-year fixed mortgages versus shorter-term adjustable ones). The plan is similar to a financing arrangement used in at least six countries, including Australia.
In other words, Pay It Forward is not “tuition free”—it simply changes the timing of tuition payments and creates more differentiation in how much tuition individual students pay. Nor does Pay It Forward offer “free higher education,” since not only must students pay the costs of tuition and fees later, but the costs of room and board, books, and other expenses (amounting to 60 percent of the typical college bill) are not covered at all.
The Status Quo: Tuition and Fees Are Only a Fraction of Costs
Many Americans might have done a double-take at the last sentence. Yes, tuition and fees constitute the minority fraction of the costs of attendance at public universities. Take the University of Oregon, for example. 
Tuition and Fees = $9,830
Room and Board = $10,722
Books and supplies = $1,050
Other expenses = $2,430
TOTAL Cost of Attendance= $24,075
Reasonable people might disagree over who should cover the costs of room and board for college students, but the fact remains that they must be covered primarily through sourcesother than work if the average student is to succeed in completing a degree. Undergraduates rarely secure jobs paying more than minimum wage, and if they are to have time to devote to studying, they should not work more than 20 hours a week—and for those with weaker academic skills in need of tutoring, far less. For students in today’s economically vulnerable families, who depend more heavily on one another for support, time for working is increasingly crowded out by the need to care for both older and younger family members. And summer work is not a likely option, since many students need to take classes in order to get hard-to-access courses completed, retake failed courses, or complete enough credits to finish in four years.
So, given all of those stipulations, let’s assume an undergraduate is willing and able to work 20 hours a week at minimum wage. After taxes, the student will earn just under $7,000 a year. Even with payment of tuition and fees delayed until after graduation, their wages would only cover about half of their costs of attendance. The other $7,000 remains: if Pell-eligible, the student may have that covered with federal aid, but if not, the family either pays it or borrows it. That’s right: under Pay It Forward, the average student will still need to work 20 hours a week and pay about $28,000 (somehow) in order to get a bachelor’s degree—after which, up to 3 percent (maybe more) of annual income will be taken by the state for a period of 24 years.
Is this worse than the status quo? Maybe, depending on who you are and what the actual percentage ends up being (more on that in the next section). A few facts regarding the policy’s intended resolution of student debt are necessary to understand why it will not significantly improve the current situation: 
  1. The crisis in student debt is not mainly in the public sector. The $1 trillion in total debt resides mainly with two groups of students: poor students attending for-profit universities, and those engaged in a long period of education, including graduate school. Neither of these are addressed by Pay It Forward.
  2. A federal, income-based repayment (IBR) option already exists and is underutilized. There are two main issues confronting students in public universities with debt. First, large numbers do not finish their degrees, making repayment much harder. Second, those who graduate do not opt for the existing income-based repayment plan, instead paying substantial amounts of their income over a short period of time, even when unemployed. This puts them at risk for delinquency or default. But there is already a solution: the federal IBR option, which prevents delinquency or default entirely by making monthly payments conditional on income and capping payments at no more than 15 percent of income. The repayment period is often far shorter than Pay It Forward’s, but only a small fraction of borrowers has enrolled in IBR, seemingly because many do not know about it. Presumably IBR would continue to exist under Pay It Forward and payments for the Oregon program would not be counted as debt (since it is not called a loan). In this case, students would be enrolled in two “affordable” repayment plans but have to make debt service payments approaching or in excess of what either program considers “affordable.”
  3. Private providers already offer very similar options to students. There are at least two firms in the private sector that make these investments in students, but instead of putting taxpayers on the hook for the risk that students will not repay, investors can choose to invest or not invest in a given student based on their comfort with the likelihood that the student is a good risk. These firms use variable-rate rather than flat-rate risk pricing to protect that investment. It is not clear that a flat-rate scheme is better for the majority of students, or good for the state, and I strongly suspect the rate will therefore climb substantially over time as problems with the initial calculations are realized. Consider whether you would support this plan if the amount that must be repaid were 5 percent, 10 percent, or even higher? With this option already available to students yet not remotely popular, why should the state get involved?
  4. Parents of students in the public sector often hold more debt than their students. The amount students can borrow each year is capped such that middle-income students rarely borrow more than $5,000 a year. But parents face fewer restrictions, opting for the Parent Plus Loan and private options, financing up to $15,000 or more a year. The real crisis may lie with parents affected by debt accrued for their children—and if anything, Pay It Forward may most suit their needs by passing more costs to their children.
The truth is that, despite lofty promises, Pay It Forward has the potential to do very little if anything about the significant burdens facing higher education’s key stakeholders.
The Burden on the State
Income-based repayment programs are difficult to particularly implement for two reasons. First, they require a great deal of upfront cash. You cannot loan out money you do not have. Reports indicate that Oregon must raise at least $9 billion to get this program started, and yet the proposals provide no indication of where it might come from. I am told that the likelihood source is state bonds, which of course require repayment as well.  Perhaps even more importantly, $9 billion is very likely a significant underestimate of the actual costs.  One key issue is that only about half of entering undergraduates in Oregon public universities turn into graduates over a six-year period—so it repayment will be slower to accrue and likely lower than anticipated. In addition, the projected earnings trajectories by age on which the repayment calculations are made need to reflect the demographic at hand—they are based on averages yet the majority of today’s graduates are women, and they continue to earn less and take more time off from employment for childbearing. The less that graduates pay back, the more the program costs up front. Moreover, I doubt that students will tolerate such a lengthy repayment period, and if it is shortened, the costs go up. Thus, if $9 billion is an estimate based on high four-year graduation rates, uses average earnings rather than for a predominately female group of students, and assumes a maximum of 3 percent then it is substantially under-stated.
Sometimes the best intentions go awry, and in this case it is possible that instead of state bonds, the Oregon Legislature could opt for a funding source mentioned by advocates in Washington State: ending need-based financial aid in the form of grants to low-income students. The consequence? Students from low-income families would have to pay even more for their own education. That’s one way of leveling the playing field, but not one that many progressives would support.
Second, there must be a mechanism for collecting the money loaned to students. This is an enormous undertaking, and one far harder to accomplish as an individual state or in a nation as large as the United States. (Australia—one country where a similar plan is in effect—is not a reasonable example in this case.) The challenge of recollection is not a hypothetical, and it is not a small or inexpensive concern; in fact, an American example suggests that the wealthiest students will be the ones most likely to try and abdicate on repayment. In the 1970s, Yale University instituted a Tuition Postponement Option, developed by Nobel prize–winning economist James Tobin, designed to “help needy students afford an Ivy League education in a way that wouldn’t discourage them from pursuing worthy low-paying careers.” Similar to Pay It Forward in concept, it effectively backfired, as students who did well with their Yale education refused to repay, and bad-mouthed the program. Incredibly, beneficiaries publicly denigrated it as a terrible financial tool, and drew parallels between its longevity and the lasting power of some sexually transmitted diseases! We can expect today’s wealthy alumni to do the same, and demand an opt-out mechanism, which will undermine the program’s financial stability if granted.
Certainly, the participation of the Internal Revenue Service would greatly help this effort, but gaining that participation is no small feat—and the IRS will have a substantial burden to carry.
The Burden on Students
Let’s say the proposal is funded and moves forward. What next? In terms of consequences for students, the biggest change is that tuition and fees will be paid post-graduation (or post-dropout, since despite media reports, all students will pay, not only graduates) and the amount paid will depend on one’s income over the next 24 years. There are several possible positive benefits, including: reducing fears of sticker price among some students, allowing families to save for a longer period of time to pay college costs, lessening student debt, and creating an incentive for students to opt for less lucrative fields for their jobs and careers or stay home to raise kids.
But these potential benefits are overwhelmingly hypothetical. Colleges and universities will still have to disclose the remaining cost of attendance, which will be substantial, so sticker shock will remain. As noted earlier, most students will still have to borrow money to pay those costs, or families will have to pay them out of pocket. Rather than saving for future tuition payments, trends in family dynamics suggest that parents are just as likely to reduce their obligation to contribute to their children, since once they are employed they are “on their own” as adults. In this case, the share of college costs paid by parents rather than children may decline. In fact, this seems to be an intention of the plan, as it proponents are careful to highlight the rising amount of student debt held by parents. Finally, there is little evidence that income-based repayment plans succeed at changing occupational choices—they provide a reward to people who opt for socially valuable but less lucrative careers, but do not induce them to choose them over other options.
In addition, many middle-class students who currently pay for college at least partly out of pocket may pay a larger sum of money for their tuition and fees under the plan than they do currently. A graphic in the Wall Street Journal makes this clear: while median debt among borrowers hovers around $25,000, the average student paying it forward will pay an extra $7,400 for the longer repayment period. (Moreover, these numbers are likely understated since they do not adjust for net present value.) For students with currently lower-than-average debt loads and higher than-average earnings, the costs will be higher. The real beneficiaries might be those students borrowing more than the average amount to attend college while earning less than average post-graduation—but this hinges on their ability to cover their costs of attendance outside of tuition and fees without borrowing. If they borrow, the apparent benefits of this plan will be diminished. And if the repayment percentage rises, and it easily could, this calculus adjusts yet again.
Pay It Forward’s Trojan Horse
Oregon is getting a remarkable amount of praise for this plan, and undoubtedly its legislators are thrilled. The plan calls for the state to continue to invest in public higher education going forward, the part of the deal that is arguably most critical.  But the real “pay it forward” in the plan is the goal that today’s students will create a “stable funding stream” for tomorrow’s students—relieving the state of the need to do so. Critically, the plan’s authors call it a plan of “shared responsibility.” Given that they are students, it is likely that they mean to imply that the state will do more to participate—but the state in this case may forecast the opposite—a willingness of students to do even more to pay for college themselves.
After all, Oregon has taken steps in recent years towards the privatization of public higher education. The share of general fund monies going to higher education in Oregondeclined from 17 percent in 1997 to 5.8 percent in 2009. It is a laggard, falling in the bottom 20 percent of appropriations per FTE. Moreover, Republicans have endeavored to exert less direct financial oversight and administration of public universities in the state by altering the governance structure, which could lead to further cost escalation. But this isn’t unusual these days, as most states seek to justify their disinvestment in higher education and seek ways to take it further. What better evidence that the state could get away with doing even less for students than observing those same students agreeing to cover the costs themselves, out of their future income?
Lest this sound overly cynical, consider the case of Virginia, where the flagship university argued that by doing more itself, state support would increase. In fact, the more financial independence the university took on, the less support it got—students and families pay a larger fraction of college costs in the state than ever before.
The key here is that the Oregon plan requires students to pay their future income back to the state for decades to come—but does not obligate the state to continue its investment. This is unsurprising, since from their inception by economist Milton Friedman these “human capital contracts” have treated higher education as a private good.  While the state may not raise the repayment percentage paid by current students, it can certainly increase it for future students—and it will have every incentive to, as long as public objections remain relatively quiet.
In other words, there is a possible dark side of the proposal getting insufficient attention: some Oregon legislators seeking to spend less on higher education may be supporting Pay It Forward in order to simultaneously quell public outrage about student debt, garnering positive media attention and votes, while also increasing the fraction of higher education costs paid by students and families.
Reducing Educational Inequality, or Exacerbating It?
There rhetorical approach used to describe Pay It Forward is notable: it is “not a loan” but rather a “social insurance program.” Use of that social insurance will purportedly reduce barriers to college attainment and promote equality.  How will this occur?
In fact, Pay It Forward seems most likely to benefit the parents of students from middle-income families who are currently taking on PLUS loans that are not subject to income-based repayment now. If they transfer their current financial contributions (before loans) to helping their students fund their other costs of attendance (most likely to help them avoid the need to work) and they do not offer to contribute to the payments post-college, then their own borrowing will lessen. But importantly, this will be achieved by transferring the burden to their children—not by getting rid of it entirely.
Even more importantly, however, the policy has the potential to increase the institutional segregation of students based on family income. Students from wealthy families at public institutions do not accrue much debt now—they pay out of pocket—and they could paymore under Pay It Forward. In fact, that is precisely the intention of the model: as one reporter described it, “Just like a venture-capital portfolio that earns its profit from a few star investments, many students would end up underpaying the cost of their college, subsidized by the school’s star businessmen.”
As illustration, consider that with annual tuition and fees of about $10,000 they currently pay about $40,000 in tuition and fees for a bachelor’s degree at public institutions. If they go on to average $80,000 per year over the next 20 years, they will have paid almost $48,000—and if they earn more, they will pay more. The value of paying that money out more slowly over time may convince them that it is worth remaining in public higher education, but it is just as likely that they will perceive a disincentive to stay in a system that capitalizes on their future earnings in this way, when private institutions offer them the easier option of having their parents pay now. If the students with the greatest earning power face incentives to leave the public sector (as suggested by the Australian experience) the long-term sustainability of Pay It Forward may also be in question. Worse yet, the model will likely allow wealthy families to ‘opt out,’ exacerbating the current situation in which some students graduate with no debt, and others pay off college for decades.
Admittedly, many of the concerns raised here are hypothetical ones. But this proposal is entirely hypothetical. The plan for a demonstration program is a weak one, since it would be impossible to extrapolate the findings from an experiment done with a few universities to implications for either a state-level or national policy, and it would be unethical and impossible to properly assess effects using methods like random assignment in order to get clear evidence of effectiveness.
The Political Consequences of Pay It Forward—Pay It Yourself
It may seem to the reader a bit odd for a scholar like myself, so concerned with finding ways to make college more affordable, to argue so strenuously against a seemingly progressive policy. Fully explaining my reason for engagement requires a brief discussion of the political economy of “Pay It Forward” plans.
For forty years, a quiet revolution has redefined individual value as residing in “human capital,” a commodity rather than part of an integrated society. As such, advocates of higher education have willingly embraced a narrative that says those who benefit shall pay. The effect of this model has been an increasing focus on the wage premiums accruing to college degrees, growing efforts to document individual-level returns across and among individuals rather than impacts on society, and the development of a student loan industry that makes it possible for colleges and universities to raise costs without losing enrollment.
We have lost sight of two critical things. First, there is a broad societal function of education: ensuring that our democracy has informed voters capable of full participation. A focus on that function means funding public postsecondary education through taxation, shared progressively across all citizens of a state. Furthermore, it means constraining those public institutions from developing elaborating university activities while enjoyable for participants, putting college beyond financial research for the general public. A focus on high-quality postsecondary learning with few extras, no frills, could be provided and publicly supported with a true social compact, one involving all key partners, including the federal government. Turning the energy around this proposal into a constructive plan that moves toward that goal would be a smart move.
In addition, institutional behaviors matter for the success of their students. Pay It Forward does nothing to address the numerous challenges created by the actions of colleges and universities, including those in the public sector, and even lets states off the hook for monitoring those behaviors. It is predictable but unfortunate that the proposal includes no accountability for either states or higher education institutions.  In fact, their abdication of responsibility for college affordability over the last forty years is why we are in this mess in the first place.
Unfortunately—and I think unintentionally—Pay It Forward subscribes to the same old narratives and assumptions of the current system. Not only is it silent on the matter of college costs and taxation and does nothing to increase the government role in shouldering the burden of costs, but the solution it offers is for students to help themselves. As one of the student authors of the plan told the New York Times, “When we talked to legislators, conservatives said it appealed to them because it’s a contract between the student and the state, so they see it as a transaction, not as a grant.” That’s partly right—it is a transaction, one that requires repayment, and most certainly is not a grant. But it is also not a two-way contract between students and the state, it is one-way, and largely student to student. Instead of Pay It Forward, it might be called Pay It Yourself.
The short-term benefits of the plan could be undermined by the longer-term political consequence of silencing the fire raging among those seeking a real long-term solution. It is very unlikely that Pay It Forward will be financially possible, initially or over the long haul, but it is quite likely that popular appetite for the program will satisfice enough people to keep them from working day and night on better solutions.
In other words, my largest concern is that neutering the powerful voices of middle-class families outraged about skyrocketing debt and high tuition with a Pay It Forward approach is politically convenient and could unintentionally cripple real progress toward real solutions. It conveniently skirts issue of high college costs by emphasizing the flexible, long-term nature of the repayment plan, and obscures discussions of rising tuition entirely. In fact, college graduates will pay under this plan—and they will pay far too much. Today, investments in postsecondary education are not private transactions but rather are public ones, and the social insurance policy we need is one that combines truly free tuition and fees with need-based financial aid.

You can hear me discuss these issues further on National Public Radio's On Point program, which aired Wednesday July 10, 2013.  The audio recording is here. 

In addition, you might want to check out the following commentaries on the Oregon Plan.