From Where I Sit - Cents and sensibility

October 25, 2012

Right outside Sather Gate at the University of California, Berkeley, student activists are canvassing and urging their fellow students to "Register and Vote!" I don't know for sure whether they are Democrats or Republicans, but chances are they're trying to mobilise the student vote for President Obama. The Republican campaign isn't really trying to make major inroads into the traditionally blue-leaning college vote. The Romney-Ryan ticket is rarely seen on campuses - a preferred playground for Mr Obama.

But the fact that the Republican Party isn't even contesting colleges doesn't mean that they are safe in the president's pocket: actual student turnout may be as crucial for the outcome of the 6 November presidential election as general turnout in the battleground states of Ohio and Florida. And enthusiasm for the current administration's higher education policies is muted at best.

"Affordable higher education" sounds like a good idea to run on, and both Barack and Michelle Obama never fail to point to their personal histories and the rewards they gained from university. But the facts and figures of US higher education speak of a bleak reality: student debt now exceeds $1 trillion (£600 billion). As the cost of higher education skyrockets, one in six borrowers is in default.

It is, of course, not in the interest of collecting agencies to point out to borrowers that the federal government's student loan programme offers flexible payment plans with special conditions for those who cannot afford the monthly payments. Or to inform them about various loan-forgiveness programmes the government has installed. On the contrary, these agencies do what they are there for: intimidate borrowers, increase their debt through penalties and ultimately ruin their credit histories.

The latest figures from the Department of Education show one area where the problem of burgeoning student loan default is already turning critical: for-profit colleges. As The New York Times points out, they account for only 13 per cent of higher education enrolment but for almost half of defaults. Small wonder: most of them collect extortionate fees for largely useless degrees. The Obama administration has identified the problem and threatens to cut federal student aid to colleges with a default rate of more than 30 per cent for three consecutive years or 40 per cent in one year, a move that, given time, might hit a higher number of colleges than is presently envisaged.

For what institution of higher learning these days is not a for-profit, instead of an institution that is primarily designed to foster knowledge, skills and the pursuit of truth? It has always puzzled me that the quality of a nation's system of higher education should be measured by the amount of money it spends on it. To be sure, that may be an indicator of the esteem higher education enjoys in that country. It may also mean that the system is absurdly expensive, or (as in the case of the US healthcare system) both absurdly expensive and shockingly inefficient. In other words: that it has been hijacked by private interests and that student loan debt is just another financial product.

As an editorial in the n+1 literary magazine put it earlier this year: "Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly - and very dimly - a system for imparting knowledge...As long as access to the workforce is controlled by the bachelor's degree, students will pay more and more." No matter what their degrees stand for. The old system dies by degrees. Accumulating student loan debt is just a symptom.

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