Monday, April 13, 2009

Another Reason Why I Voted For Obama

Obama wants to effectively end participation by banks and private lenders in student loans, and redirect the profits into Pell grants for the poorest students. This article in the NY Times is largely sympathetic to the lenders strongly opposed to the President's reform measures. It quotes extensively from corporate spokespersons and the many friends of the financial industry in Congress, and only once or twice from education advocates who say that such reform is long overdue. These loans are hugely profitable for these companies, and completely risk free since the federal government guarantees them. This whole system lays a huge debt burden on the backs of young people at the very beginning of their careers. I've felt for years that the whole business of 22 and 23 year olds carrying $60,000 to $100,000 debt burdens is insanity. College students are gouged enough by sky-high tuitions, monopoly text book publishers with captive markets, overpriced food and housing services, etc.

This whole system has had a stifling effect on higher education in my opinion. My old professors in grad school 25 years ago (when companies like Sallie Mae were just beginning to make their presence known) used to complain about how passive their students had become. One of them said that teaching was becoming like talking to a room full of stenographers. Students rarely challenged them on anything anymore. Things that they once used successfully in their classes to provoke students into arguments now barely registered. Those old professors of mine could pay their way through college by a combination of off-campus employment and the GI Bill. They did not have to go out into the world already carrying a huge debt load. Tuitions and expenses today are way beyond the means of students carrying jobs. To my mind, it's no accident that the spike in tuition costs and the advent of student lenders coincides with the sudden flood of students into business schools and into the financial industry that began in the 1980s. The pressures of repaying those huge loans began to be felt even before students finished high school. They certainly affected their choices of majors and careers. They still do. The old days of higher ed where students felt free to experiment and try things out, and were encouraged to do so, are long over. Now it is all very high stakes with students under a lot of pressure to make the "right" career choice. College education is now largely a series of hoops that students must jump through to gain admission into the middle class. The high tuition costs are considered the entrance fee into the professional classes. The idea of college as a place to experiment, as an opportunity to grow and get to know the world that one might never have again in life, to settle on a vocation as well as a career, all that is now largely past. Small wonder that business schools in most colleges and universities tend to be large and lavish while humanities and science programs are so shrunken and beggared, even those necessary for pre-med and pre-law.

I don't think Obama's proposed plan will rectify this situation, but it is a big step in the right direction.

PS: Here's an excellent essay by dday over at Hullabaloo about how the corporate oligarchy -- determined to squash this and all other meaningful reforms and preserve the profitable status quo -- is an equal opportunity employer.
In this respect, I see Washington as a kind of Roach Motel, where politicians of all ideological stripes walk in, but they don't walk out without a sweet corporate gig and a mindset to protect the interests of the powerful over the people. A familiar story, of course, but at this crisis point, when those same corporate interests have just about sucked the Treasury dry, we need those defenders of the public and the common good, and cannot find them.

Go read the rest.

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