8.7.13

SOCIAL SCIENCE IS MORE DIFFICULT THAN ADVOCACY JOURNALISM.

The Washington Post's Peg Tyre suggests that even a temporary increase in student-loan borrowing rates is a hardship for many collegians.  She begins with a useful observation about the so-called college premium.
Americans now owe over a trillion dollars in student debt – more than they owe on auto loans and credit cards. On average, people with student loans owe about $24,000. About 13 percent of people with student debt owe more than $50,000.

Those numbers are dismissed by a lot of folks who say, “Feh! Stop moaning! If you end up owing 50 grand to get a sheepskin from Middlebury or Vanderbilt, it’s a good investment.” Here’s how that thinking goes: With your newly minted degree, you can get a decent job, live with you parents for a couple of years and pay down your debt to a manageable level. Presto!

To which I have this to say: “Sweetie. Honey. With all due respect, do you know anyone who isn’t rich?”

Because once you step out of bubble of affluence, college and college debt looks pretty different. Here’s how it works when you aren’t sitting on a big cushion of cash: Because your family is not wealthy, you live in an under-served neighborhood and the local public school didn’t prepare you for college in the way that students from affluent suburbs are prepared.
In the world of advocacy journalism, it serves to write "under-served" and many of your readers might nod and say "More Federal Aid" or something to that effect.  Social science, however, requires coming to grips with the residual Old Industrial Age thinking in which schooling is to be endured until that factory job at closed-economy union wages opens up.  It also requires coming to grips with neighborhoods in which school districts that cross gang territories put more youngsters at risk of becoming collateral damage in revenge killings.
You take the SATs or ACTs and you get that message loud and clear. (So much for merit scholarship with those test scores!) So you work for a while, and when you are good and sick of working a mind-numbing minimum wage job, you end up taking loans to attend not Vanderbilt or Middlebury, but a local public or regional private college where admission standards are more flexible but the graduation rates are often less than 50 percent.
That minimum-wage job might be the best-case scenario. Another career path might be to enlist in the service, and experience repeated deployments to dangerous places because none of the four most recent presidents have waged war in such a way as to win. Such an individual might have developed some personal discipline. That person might also be injured.
By sophomore year, the dreams, determination and focus that got you to sign for those student loans is replaced by pervasive hopelessness. After two semesters, you still can’t get out of remedial math class and move forward in your major. And these days, because you are only working part time, you don’t even have enough money to buy gas to get you back and forth to campus. You drop out with 20 grand in debt. And you know what? Your mom is selling her house (see mortgage crisis, 2008.) You look around at your job options, which are—crushingly—the same job you had before you borrowed all that money.
Because that university enables your high school to issue certificates of time served, rather than calling out the failing schools that keep sending Distressed Material to Remedial Math?
Now you are nearly 30. Middle class and affluent kids are getting married and starting to save for a house. (Make no mistake; if they are living in a city, where the good jobs are, their parents will help on the downpayment.) You, however, are stuck in the debt maze.
Again, that's a best-case scenario. There are a lot of opportunities to produce bastard children in the years between 18 and 30, and the incidence of bastardy continues to be a strong correlate with the incidence of poverty.  More mazes to be stuck in, to be sure.
The options for our hard working young people of limited means are way too narrow. They are being set up for failure and once they stumble, the penalties are too severe. Playing politics with student loans does a disservice to people who need and deserve more helpful and forward-looking government policies.
Perhaps the way forward is to look backward, to return, unapologetically, to public education as a middle-class concept.  Those babies and children caught in the Chicago cross-fire deserve no less.

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