Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Notes From The College Industrial Complex: Edu-Debt Springs Eternal

High wire fencing on the playground
High rise housing all around
High rise prices on the high street
High time to pull it all down

White boys kicking in a window

Straight girls watching where they gone

Never trust a copper in a crime car

Just whose side are you on?
--Tom Robinson Band, "Up Against The Wall"

Whilst looking up some other potential posting topics, I came across this whopper from the Campaign For America's Future, which focuses on a little-advertised fact about our glorious federal government -- if you borrowed their money to finance your college education, you'll be paying into your elder years...and pursued into them, as well, if you haven't managed to pay off the loan. According to the report, which I've helpfully posted below, an estimated 760,000 households headed by someone 65 or older are paying off student loans. That's worth roughly $18.2 billion in debt.

Unfortunately, one in four of these households (191,000) are in default, which allows Uncle Sam to grab up to 15 percent of your Social Security check (as long as it doesn't fall below $750 a month). As Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) observes, "Garnishing Social Security benefits defeats the entire point of the program -- that's why we don't allow banks or credit card companies to do it." Well, Congress didn't allow any garnishments to happen until 1996 -- when the Republican-led Congress carved out an exemption for student loan debt, as part of its "Contract On America." Oh, wait, you mean the "Contract With America?" No, I think the other preposition fits better.

Imagine the sticker shock awaiting millions of retirees -- who shouldn't have to worry about being hunted down for decades-old debt in their golden years (theoretical or otherwise). Of course, America is virtually the only industrialized nation that insists on clinging to this Rube Goldberg for-profit model of education (although Britain is doing its damnedest to catch up with our example). Still, other nations seem to get by just fine without all the malignancies clotting our college and university system -- such as the bloated administrations who see no problem with condemning future generations of instructors to permanet adjuncthood...but I digress.

Of course, the other problem is that, while edu-debt is exploding, along with cost of living, wages and salaries haven't remotely kept pace. As a June 2014 article on Yahoo Finance indicates, the cost of tuition and fees has soared by 1,120% since the government started keeping track of these matters in 1978. And, as Dan Hurley, a policy expert for the American Association of Colleges and Universities suggests -- such figures often obscure the bigger problem: "Instead of young adults purchasing homes and goods and services, they're paying [for college], which doesn't generate any income for the country."

The grind of working pay off edu-debt and other cost of living expenses also chips away at the one of the most important -- and rarely mentioned -- aspects of the college experience, namely, exposure to people and ideas that could change your life. I met four of my closest friends in college: one has since died, but the others remain part of my life.  I wouldn't have met them anywhere else: need I say more? Still, I'll own up and admit -- hand on heart -- I wasn't necessarily motivated by whatever sheepskin I was aiming to get. I imagined college being something like the British art school scene of 1964-65...with the Kinks, the Pretty Things and Yardbirds rubbing suitably inebriated shoulders...or the '76-'77 punk explosion, where you just might bump into Paul Simonon toting art supplies and canvases, looking for another abandoned ice cream factory or junkyard to turn into a mural. I thought it'd all be a lot like Carnaby Street, with myself and my co-conspirators plotting how to take the world by storm between rounds of some imported beer or other -- even, though, at times, I felt more like Catwoman's hapless victim, Carnaby Katz, during Batman's final soggy season on TV. Good, bad or indifferent, though, I wouldn't trade those times for anything.

Then again, I didn't have to work nearly the hours that grads face down these days...back then, jobs were basically excuses to pay the odd bill, or (better yet) buy silly punk records. If you didn't have enough money for those silly punk records, you'd hope to hustle some by cashing in your textbooks...or, as I eventually did...start can collecting, and turn it into a good side income. Some way or another, you found ways to get by, and get what you wanted -- I bought my first bass for $120, which I saved by dedicating one day of my weekly can collecting take to the cause. What students do now...or whether they could pull off similar scenarios...I can't imagine.

Given the one-sided nature of the present situation, it's not surprising that more and more grads are choosing to default (see the essay below)...though the bubble will likely have to swell quite a bit larger before all those greenbacks come bursting out of our undergraduate equivalent of Mount Vesuvius (or is it more like Krakatoa?). And that's before we even get to the other big questions that the Campaign's report raises: with fewer and fewer jobs requiring a four-year degree, should college be the automatic choice for everyone? More to the point, how do we force a greater degree of accountability from institutions that fight their workers as hard as a ninteenth century robber baron? Who knows -- the "Free University" idea of the 1960s looks better and better all the time. Giving such concepts a bigger stage could only improve the present system...even if our friendly neighborhood banker is dead set against the idea. --The Reckoner

And I said,
Look out, listen, can you hear it:
Panic in the County Hall?

And I said,
Look out, listen, can you hear it:
Whitehall (got us) up against a wall
They got us up against the wall...

Links 'N' More (Click 'Em Before
They Jack Up Your Tuition):

Tom Robinson Band: Up Against The Wall:

Campaign For America's Future:
Haunted By Student Debt To The Grave:
College Is Ripping You Off:

The New York Times:
Why I Defaulted
On My Student Loans:

The Wall Street Journal:
$555,000 Student Loan Burden:

Yahoo Finance: The Daily Ticker:
College Costs Unaffordable For Students:

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