Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Student Debt Crisis

            I had already half decided that I would attempt to address the student loan crisis when I came upon an opinion piece by David Leonhardt in yesterday’s Times concerning Princeton, my former employer, and specifically its efforts to identify, attract, and give financial support to able students from “low income” backgrounds. In my long experience the Times has seldom had much good to say about Princeton.  But Leonhardt’s piece is not merely complimentary; it’s nearly fawning.  He praises the institution for the rising percentage of Pell Grant recipients in recent entering classes—a Pell Grant being a pretty good indicator of seriously modest family financial resources.

            In addition to a parochial interest in the issue of educational finance, I have a deeply personal one.  For nine academic years between the fall of 1954 and the summer of 1963 I got a superb education at three fine institutions, one of them being Princeton, from which I received my doctorate.  The out-of-pocket expense to me was nil--not one red cent.  Various foundations and trusts paid for it all.  A foundation has no face, and a trust no distinctive voice.  It was almost possible to regard the largess as entitlement rather than a gift of long-vanished generous and visionary men, a gift demanding a lifetime’s gratitude and repayable, and then only in part, by an ever-intentional teaching vocation.  I might wish the same for every intellectually serious boy and girl in America.  What we have instead is a generation of graduates suffocating at the bottom of a silo of debt.

            For the Princetons of the country—a fairly numerous but still proportionally tiny part of American higher education—the student debt crisis is, well, mostly academic.  The endowments of such institutions are so huge that they arguably need not and perhaps morally should not collect undergraduate tuition at all.  They could frankly embrace the role of redistributive charity that they perform and be done with it.

But consider the dog rather than the tail.  I mean the large number of institutions whose “financial aid packages” must depend upon an ever increasing ratio of loan to outright grant.  My undergraduate alma mater, which I think is perhaps ranked about number fifty in quality among the cohort of liberal arts colleges, now has a comprehensive fee (academic charges plus room and board) of about $55,000.  That is a real bargain.  The more famous places that everyone lusts after come in at $60,000 or more.  It is important to realize two things.  These figures are real, and relate to real costs.  Politicians now talking about “free college” must know that there is no more free college than there is free lunch: somebody is paying for it.  Secondly, such comprehensive fees exceed the median annual income of the middle quintile of American families, are about twice that of the fourth quintile, and about five times that of the impoverished bottom quintile.  Families in the second quintile, who probably could be described as “upper middle class” could at least in theory absorb one such fee per year, if only in theory.

The willingness of families to make heroic sacrifices to secure a good education for their offspring has inspired me for the last half century.  I understand also why during that time a college education has ever more explicitly come to be regarded in terms of economic transaction or investment.   Though entirely understandable and perhaps inevitable, this development makes us purists a little wistful.  For a few of us still believe that the goal of liberal education is preparation for personal spiritual fulfillment and virtuous civic engagement rather than admission to the top quarter of the top quintile—the only group in America today that can sit down and write out the big check to Amherst without batting an eye, whatever eye-batting is.

American higher education has certain marked similarities to American medicine.  Both have been, indeed continue to be, the envy of the world.  Yet circumstances seem to be demonstrating that without a fundamental rethink and the laborious forging of certain shared social goals we cannot afford either much longer.  There is a great deal to feel sad about in our current political circumstances.  My personal take as an American patriot—meaning someone who loves his native land—is that we are truly witnessing the degradation of the democratic dogma.  You will perhaps recognize in that sonorous alliteration the title of a fine book (1919) by Henry Adams.  Adams quipped that a study of the American presidents from Washington to Ulysses Grant “entirely disproves the theory of evolution.”  I say no more.  Though for obvious reasons the focus of attention remains on the executive, we are hardly less grieved by a body of legislators from whose small-minded mediocrity, bipartisan though further limited by a poisonous partisanship, it would be unreasonable to expect very much.  The “student debt crisis” will probably just have to take its place in the unmoving queue.