Tuesday, May 15, 2007

College in Credit Card Nation

Having just made it through one college admission season in Credit Card Nation, I am bracing for the next. One of the down sides of being involved in the Higher Ed Biz is that people with college-age children believe or hope that we who are on The Job can give some kind of useful advice about how to get into a great school. This often leaves the Radical in a tough spot. For example, I honestly don't know why people do or do not get into Zenith, since I imagine, like everything else, it changes from year to year and I haven't seen a first-year file for four years. And even if I had, I still couldn't tell you. Different applicants fill different instutional desires, and those desires are not always predictable. My students exhibit a range of talents and abilities about which I cannot generalize in any useful way, or translate into a "good" application. Some write well; others write poorly. Some are good at managing school; others might be better off renting a loft and creating art full-time. Some seem like unusually original thinkers, others are as conventional, and as successful, as Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But I have no idea *why* any of them got in. Or why other talented students whose heart's desire was to climb Zenith's heights did not.

And of course there is that nice lady at MIT who could get other people into college, but didn't go herself. Maybe that's the ticket: work your way to the top instead of going to college, like Horatio Alger.

But I digress. This summer, the aspirants will begin to descend again: the children of friends; or the children of friends of friends; or the children of colleagues at Big Research Institutions, people who would never want to work at anything but an R-I school but who are clear that their children will get a better shot at a good education at a small school. And at least half of those who actually come to Zenith will be paying the bill with borrowed money, something they will try not to think about now.

I will admit that I do know some things about the choices available in higher education: for example, why you would choose a place *like* Zenith rather than an equally selective big university. I can also offer my view on, specifically, what the specific strengths and weaknesses of Zenith are at this moment in time. But honestly, much as I do think we offer an excellent education, I don't know why anyone would choose a private school over a public school nowadays, when the bill for a student entering Zenith and its peer institutions in the fall will be close to $200K for four years. And when they are going to pay up to 9% interest on at least half that money for several decades.

Note: this is one reason why some of us don't have children. If I had that much money, I would want to spend it on myself. And now that I have seen Julie Christie do the mental dissolve in front of her husband's eyes in "Away From Her" I also know I wouldn't spend that money on assisted living either.

I'm thinking Paris. Or early retirement. Or early retirement in Paris.

Anyway, back to colleges. Thanks to the muck-raking Andrew Cuomo and the string he pulled in New York state that is unravelling the national sweater, I would advise everyone who is sending a child to college to shop for a student loan like they would shop for a gas grill or a car. How about those Republican bastards, having cleaned out the elderly, the sick and the poor, going after students too? The latest bunch of criminals to fall into the net are Sallie Mae and JP Morgan. Of course, the name Morgan should all make us think "robber baron" anyway, so who's surprised? And Sallie Mae, in addition to making loans to captive audiences that will never make a nickel without a B.A., also issues a credit card, which should cause people to smell a rat. Presumably, you can also charge your books and airline tickets at up to 30% interest, now the highest legal commercial lending rate permitted by -- you guessed it, a Republican Congress that repeatedly raised the ceiling on interest rates.

Come to think of it, why have we made student loans a for-profit industry at all? Sorry, I forgot. The free market. An end to government supporting the weak, the poor and the oppressed. Better to be Credit Card Nation than Wimp Nation.

Well wait -- back off the cynicism a minute, Radical. I guess we *were* surprised that the colleges and universities themselves, non-profit institutions all, were actually getting paid to allow education lenders to rip off college and graduate students. Who knew?

Surprise! As it turns out, the Department of Education in a Republican Administration knew at least four years ago, although this is a story that has not been particularly well covered except on National Public Radio, where you can listen to part of the hearings. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings who, like everybody else in the Bush cabinet now spends her time either testifying before a congressional committee or preparing to do so, was unable to respond adequately last Thursday when George Miller (D-California) asked her why the Department knew about the "gifts" (aka, graft, or kickbacks) given to financial aid officers and did nothing to stop it. You can also read about it here, thanks to a link to the Guardian's story from Anya Kamenetz's excellent blog Generation Debt (methinks there is a book too, but start with the blog.)

You will be glad to know the Democratic Congress has just passed legislation to stop this gift-giving, although they have not yet taken action to end the gifts they and their re-election campaigns receive. Another day, perhaps.

You will also be glad to know that, luckily for the students who are already saddled with these loans, there is a built-in way to pay them back in less than twenty or thirty years. You can join the military and earn from partial to full repayment of your loans by getting parts of your body shot off in Iraq or Afghanistan.


anthony grafton said...

Since I have been sitting in Cambridge for a few weeks, a question has been itching me. Why is that that in Britain, the academic staff admit undergraduates, as well as graduate students, while we have admissions deans and officers? After all, in some sense we still look up to Oxford and Cambridge as the model English-speaking universities--yet in this as in many, many other respects, we don't emulate them. When did we diverge? And why?

Zach said...

Student loan debt also makes it a lot harder to qualify for a NYC apartment, as I'm just finding out. It's great to be able to have a landlord check my credit and be impressed, but that's just thanks to my parents making lots of money and me not having loans. If my roommates aren't on the lease because the landlord doesn't like their credit scores, that has an effect upon their succession rights, even with rent control (which is another issue altogether)...
My best friend from childhood is in Iraq now, trying to get money for college/ pay off loans from the two years she did spend at college. She's been trying to do online courses while she's over there, but it's hard to get enough computer access to fulfill whatever class requirements exist.
I'm excited about my new apartment, but I'm very much aware of how I'm getting it.

Anonymous said...

The Education Department only has oversight of loans made through the federal student loan programs in which the government guarantees the loans. They have no authority over the growing private student loan industry, in which the government doesn‘t make or guarantee the loans.

But thanks anyway for your extremely simplistic, black and white analysis, in which you place sole responsibility on the Republican Party. Also, thanks for linking to the Guardian and some blog as support. What's wrong with linking Spellings transcript from Congress? I guess the facts would be just to tricky for you to deal with.

Tenured Radical said...

Responding to all:

Dear Tony,

I would guess the 1920's is the moment things shifted to admissions specialists, since that is also when "student services" were invented: see Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University. Certainly when historians banded together with other academics to create the standardized test known as the "college board" that eliminated individual examinations graded by college and university faculty (recommended by the AHA's committee of Seven in the late 1890's so that less affluent students would not have to travel to the college to take an exam that might or might not result in admission; and so that college faculty all over hte country wouldn't have to do the same thing all over the country when one entity -- the College Board - could do it. My guess is when teh College Board tests were uniformly adopted, followed by the SAT's in the post WWII period, faculty stopped participating directly in admitting students. At Bryn Mawr, however, which was modeled on Oxbridge, the faculty still do interview students, and there may be others out there. Some of my colleagues claim thye want to have a larger part (or more authority) in the admissions process, but it is so time-consuming that, when faced with it, I bet they wouldn't really want to.

Dear Zach:

Student loans make everything harder, and this business of landlords is a consequence I was unaware of. But it makes sense. SL repayment also makes it harder to buy a car, a house, take care of an elderly relative, allow your spouse not to work after childbearing, save money for your children's education, work for people who can;t pay you much, etc. The kicker is -- like credit cards, student loans do nothing *positive* for your credit rating. I discovered this when I graduated from Potemkin and tried to get a new car loan. I was turned down because I had "never taken out or repaid a major debt." No -- only 20K of federally guaranteed loans.

Dear anonymous,

You are welcome, you brave, nameless soul. And it is private corporations that give the loans that are "guaranteed" by the government, which means they are utterly risk-free for the bank. So don't be a dick the next time you comment or I'll delete you.


PS. Use the NPR link for the Spellings transcript -- oops! it was probably altered by journalists working for the "liberal media." And like this blog it is lies, all lies (Twilight Zone theme is playing in the background.)

cantdance said...

I attend to agree with your assesment of the situation, and of the GOP, oh and the Dems. What troubles me even more than the status quo is that both parties stand to benefit from maintaining it.

On a slightly related note: I appreciate your ability to speak wittily about depressing stuff without trivializing things. To me, that alone makes your blog worth reading.

Susan said...

You are right -- this whole thing is so sleazy. Even the Clinton administration, which did try to create a direct loan program, also agreed to Sallie Mae going private. And you didn't mention Sallie Mae's newest idea, to take itself private, so it has no obligation to divulge its activities to anyone.

Every time I think I understand this scandal, and how people are making money off of need, there is another level. THe Chronicle (which has also been pursuing this) had a story about how Sallie Mae staffs the company that guarantees its loans and audits them: http://chronicle.com/daily/2007/05/2007050401n.htm
(Sorry I don't know how to do links more elegantly).

As for Admissions, what you can't say is that to a certain extent at the selective colleges, it's a crap shoot: when an Admissions office can put together 3 (or sometimes more) completely different excellent classes, you *can't* explain it. What you can say is that the most important thing is that a student goes to a college where they think they can learn. Students get good educations at all sorts of places.

anthony grafton said...

TR, your chronology makes good sense. And Susan, you are on the money: at this point--according to a recent NYT article--not only traditionally selective places like Zenith but lots of other solid schools are faced with far more qualified applicants than they can take,and have to find reasons to say no to large numbers of students who would do very well if accepted.

I do wonder, though, if faculty at universities should have given up power over admissions, as most have. In Britain, the best schools also face floods of applicants, but somehow the academics stay on top of them--and at least it's scholars and scientists, not administrators, who make the decisions.

No wonder Bryn Mawr--to judge from the grad students from there whom I have taught, some very enjoyable visits to give talks, and the teaching of my Bryn Mawr-educated mentor, Hanna Holborn Gray--is such a great place.

Anonymous said...

I am happy to say that Zenith mostly paid my way as an undergrad and the History Department helped cut that burden even more by nominating me for merit scholarships along the way. I cannot say the same for my "free" graduate education which cost me $130,000 and will have cost me 4xs that once paid.

I remember the distinct difference in the plans and dreams I had for the future leaving Zenith well-educated and relatively debt free and the sense of hopelessness the first day Aunt Sallie sent me a notice to inform me I had joined generation debt for the duration of my life after grad school. Every time I considered staying true to my own goals of teaching kids from backgrounds like mine versus the hefty offers from schools like Zenith that debt crushed a little piece of my soul. Now that I have seen the other side, and how classism and institutionalized classism keep my students from succeeding, the desire to leave the Poverty U is tinged with the guilt that I may just be making excuses to pay off my loan.

I have several strategies I use in my classes to educate on the subject matter at hand while working in "loan debt, bad idea."
1. Don't bite more than you can chew - I tell them not to take out more money than they need to buy books, pay tuition, and eat modestly, anything more is like living on hamburgers for steak prices. Several of my students are on assistance and with it they get subsidized childcare from the school, I point this out to students who continually miss classes because of childcare issues and take out loans to solve the problem while also encouraging them to chalk the campus and form a caucus to talk directly to the board of regents about their childcare and transportation needs. In my local social movements classes one of the assignment options is to identify a wide scale need based on class, race, gender, sexuality, and/or ability on campus and strategize how to meet it through collective action. Part of the assignment requires analyzing how the need is met or mediated currently and almost always the answer is loans which provides ample opportunity for discussing a critical paradigm shift toward collective needs over individual gains.
2. Order low cost books - My books at Zenith cost $1,000 a term, when I wasn't overloading which I did pretty much always, and though I do use the stuff from your packets Tenured Radical and books from Ann and Indira, I am *never* going to open That Noble Dream again. When you have to pay back $1500-$3000 for every $1000 you borrow, it seems pretty obvious that professors can help students debt issues by being conscious about the book prices.I order my books based largely on price and availability through resellers (places like south end, thought and radical press have well researched, cheap, books and powells can get you a used history book for as little as 25 cents).

Another great thing about going independent with books is that you support feminist and radical presses at the same time.

I also keep an extra copy of the book in my office for those who cannot afford the book or find it in the library. My only rule is that they must return it in the same quality they borrowed it in or buy me a new one and that I will "hold their grade hostage" until they do.

3. Online course packets + reserves - If you don't make a packet then they don't have to buy it and then end up unable to return it at the end of the year. I make an online packet, I put three copies on reserve for those who need to read in hard copy, and I keep an extra copy in my office for those who might need extra time but cannot afford the printing fees.

For those who use textbooks, making an online copy of all the new articles in each edition of the textbook for students saves them tons of money. They can buy used textbooks without worrying about that one chapter some big publisher through in to the new edition just to make sure everyone had to buy it and you have copies of articles they discontinue on your hard drive. I cannot tell you how many times people have asked me where I got a copy of an article only to tell me later that it is not in their edition nor the one at the library.

4. Bring Food/Snacks to Class - At Zenith, my friends used to take as much food from Mocon that they could shove down their clothes and grab handfuls of condiments at the cafe. I distinctly remember fainting in the shower my first year because I had run out of points and dragging myself up two flights of stairs to get food from a friend who had just received a care package while nearly drowning in the smell from the caf in the butt. More points meant more loans. More meals meant more loans too.

At a school like mine where students don't have money to eat regularly but can charge it to their student loan, I bring food to class. If it is midday or evening classes I make sure the food is substantial. I used to have students share the responsibility in evening classes but the first time I saw one girl bring gourmet snacks and then pack them all up at the end while another brought one of those bags of bite size oranges you get for super cheap at the grocery store, a can of peaches, and candy she pilfered from the grad lounge, and apologize for not having more I stopped doing that.

5. Turn it into a teachable moment - besides the local social movement lesson described above, I use the loan as a metaphor in my women and development classes, feminist theory classes, and race, class, feminism courses. It works wonders to give them a lived experience example of Jaggar's argument about the illegitimacy of the foreign debt system; afterall, Jaggar argues that for a loan to be legally binding it must be engaged in freely/ lack coercion (clearly the fact that schools and loan companies have been in bed together for some time and that loan packages are sometimes the only offer on the table for how to pay for school freedom and coercion are questionable issues) and made with full knowledge (most students do not understand the way that pay back works, how high their payments will be, how long they will have to pay, that they are going to have to pay regardless of future income or graduation, etc. even when this info is provided because of the means of delivery and those who do report they felt they had no choice - see the previous problem).

6. Work from experience - I make it know through all of these tactics and preclass banter that I am open to discussing college loans with students both in the short term problem solving and in the long term social justice organizing so that they come to me with their questions. I tell them what I have done to mediate my own debt, the options I know are available and their consequences, and if I have time I take them through some of the web sites or write them down for them. I then tell them to read the material carefully, marking their questions, and then make an appointment with a free debt counselor not employed by the university and a financial aid officer. I tell them the price for my help is that once they have advocated for themselves, they must share the information with others, so that the knowledge isn't wasted or lost. I also remind them that collectively they are stronger than not and to look to strategies to cancel the debt or other organizing principles they have learned in class as options for changing the philosophy of lending at this institution and higher ed in general.

These may seem like silly, short term, solutions to those at places like Zenith but they make a huge difference in the amount of money my students spend. They also encourage them to help me get others to do similar things in their classes and put pressure on the bookstore to actually buy from independents where they normally would not. In so doing, they encourage them to think about the institutional barriers predicated on race, class, and gender that keep them in debt and feeling indebted rather than providing them with the economic capital necessary to maintain the privilege afforded through their new found intellectual and possibly social capital.

Though I was there when things started to change at Zenith, I witnessed some profound ways that we were at the forefront of changing the debtor education system at elite schools as well. During my three years there Zenith made a commitment to:

1. actively seek out funding and construct financial aid packages that minimized loans
2. provide funded study abroad opportunities - many of my students never study abroad because it means taking out additional loans, Zenith made it possible for me and almost all of my colleagues to go abroad and I can say that my experiences and my research there prepared me for my dissertation.
3. the decision of individual faculty to nominate students for additional loan cutting funding in their field based on merit, no matter how unruly they may have been, when they saw need and potential
4. they took diversity seriously and they understood that meant investing in funding and listening to students concerns - I know that changed my last year there and it might have been heavily influenced by an infamous incident with the president before I arrived, but as someone who advocated regularly, I know they listened and they reflected our concerns even if we had to occupy buildings or have speeches outside the History building or chalk outside the president's house sometimes, we inevitably got what we needed. We had one of the most diverse student bodies and one of the most active campuses and a lot of us learned to be the strong leaders that we are today because of said commitment to take us seriously and support our diversity.

I think any number of these strategies or a combination could be implemented by anyone of us teaching and working in the uni system for change. Debt is a horrible and sometimes debilitating thing and as long as Aunt Sallie is giving kickbacks to XY and Z Financial Counselor or Financial Aid Department and the Uni it will not end without all of us.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Dear Tony,

What effect does the American notion of general education have on admissions practices? An undergraduate reading history at Cambridge has applied to the history course at a college that offers the course. In the arts and sciences colleges at most American universities with which I'm familiar, students aren't required to declare a major until their second year, sometimes later. Do colleges of engineering, agriculture, management, nursing, etc. have more faculty involvement in admissions than colleges of arts and sciences?

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