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I.O.U.

by on September 5, 2018

I.O.U.

by Marco M. Pardi

Think what you do when you run in Debt; You give to another Power over your Liberty.” Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) “The Way to Wealth”. 1757

All comments are welcome and will receive a response.

In the interest of transparency I will say I came from a family which did not incur debt, for anything. We wanted a house, we bought it. We wanted a car, we bought it. We wanted an education, we either bought it or won highly competitive full academic scholarships. Loans were viewed as shameful.

What I now view as shameful, however, is a society which calls itself democratic and innovative yet fails to invest in the human resources which make democratic choices and devise beneficial innovations. I am referring particularly to the national scandal of Student Debt.

As regular readers of my column know, for over 22 years – 7 of which tenured – I taught full or part time in Ivy League universities, community colleges, public and private colleges and universities. To this day I am in contact with former students, from even the earliest years. I am quite aware of the seemingly endless debt some have incurred.

In fact, I was aware of that debt even in my earliest teaching years. Having no control over tuition and fees, I did in several cases have some control over textbook selection. Occasionally, there were issues beside cost. For one subject I could find no suitable textbooks so I wrote and published two of my own. Much to my surprise I found out the 10% of the wholesale I received as author and/or editor was eclipsed by the 20% of retail – after mark-up – collected by the college bookstore.

I also heard many students object to the price of books. So, since I knew my subjects inside and out I decided to try teaching without textbooks. That worked for a relative few, but the majority voted for having some kind of book to reference. Okay. I suggested they get used recent edition books, from other students and not from the bookstore. In the years since the internet I suggested on line resources for used books (of recent edition) and made sure everyone had received a book before launching into materials for which they may need resource back-up. That helped somewhat. But that applied only to my courses in a large institution; I do not know how far word of mouth carried to other instructors to inspire them to do the same. But still, outrageous as book costs were, they were minor in comparison to tuition and fees. I fact, a college education has long been known as the most expensive thing you will buy that comes with no warranty; there is no guarantee you will become employed at a level which allows you to pay off the cost of acquisition.

The problem of student debt does not occur in a vacuum. Many students enter college with only vague or uninformed notions of what they want to major in and what that degree will afford them. Part time jobs during high school do not usually illuminate a career path. And, increasingly, success in high school does not reliably predict success in college, or in the world of full time employment. Even the highest Grade Point Average tells me only that the person is smart; it does not tell me whether the person is intelligent. Succeeding in high school is like mastering the game of Ping Pong; the instructor serves, the student returns. The intelligent student, assuming he does not get distracted or even jaded, understands the cultural event of the game in a holistic fashion even if he does miss a shot or two – or more. But our system does not reward intelligence as it does smartness. We overwhelmingly send the smart ones to college, not realizing they will often not be ready upon graduation for exposure to a multidimensional workplace. I gave up counting the number of times I optimistically strayed while teaching a college class into what I felt was intelligent territory only to hear students ask, “Will this be on the test?” I mockingly repeated to myself the Pharaoh’s line from The Ten Commandments: “So it is said, so shall it be written!”

One of the causes gaining traction today is Free College Education. European colleges are often referenced. Indeed, at this writing there are 44 tuition free universities, many quite excellent, throughout Europe. But many, if not most, have stiff entry requirements calculated to appraise the intelligence, not just the smartness, of prospective students. Secondary school students are evaluated either steered toward university or toward technical/trade schools. Some universities not only waive all costs, they also pay a stipend. My sister (now deceased) got her B.F.A at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland at no cost. She was then awarded a State Scholarship by the Moscow State University (“Russia’s Harvard”) where she earned her M.F.A., with a small apartment and allowance paid for by the Soviet Union. It also happens here. My brother earned his B.S. Degree at the United States Military Academy at West Point with free tuition, room and board, and a monthly salary. His four years there applied toward his military retirement though after completing his contractual service he could have resigned his commission at any time.

So what can we do in our school system, especially as it relates to the crippling costs? First, I wish to clear a common misconception: College instructors do not all make the salaries the public imagines. By leaving my 10 year faculty career and accepting an offer for full time federal employment I multiplied my salary several times over. Second, there are areas in federal spending which can be trimmed. For example, The United States spends more on “defense” than the next ten countries combined. Yet, we are seeing that well educated computer experts can do far more damage far more easily and quickly and for far less cost than a multi-million dollar F-35 fighter aircraft. Why are we doing this? The United States is also the leading supplier of arms to the world. Taxpayer money is used to pay private companies for the research, development and acquisition of ever newer weapons so the previous generation of weapons can be sold off to the highest bidder, or the regime of our choice. The private companies then funnel a portion of their earnings into the “dark money” which finances the political campaigns of the Party which awarded them the contract to begin with thus assuring their win of the next contract. Billions could be re-directed into education.

Regarding the college cost question, I would recommend options from the following:

I would like to see a mandatory post-secondary year of service with an option for two or more years. This could be served in any of several federal programs, but States would be encouraged to form their own counterparts. Exceptions could be made on a case by case basis but the importance of this option is that it affords the new high school graduate with exposure to the real career world in a setting which provides time to assess these careers and to assess in what direction the participant really wants to go – traditional college major or technical/vocational school.

The Obama administration was in the process of regulating costly for-profit colleges and “universities”, especially the outright phony examples such as “Trump University”. Unfortunately, the seizure of the government by “Republicans” ended this effort. Yet, any casual observer can see from the advertising that these businesses are designed to appeal to and attract low income minorities. The result, favored by Republicans, is a relatively low-skilled, debt trapped workforce having to accept any kind of working conditions for fear of becoming unable to service their student loans. This dovetails nicely into the Republican drive to de-regulate businesses and suspend or abolish workplace safety standards deemed costly by employers. Businesses, of course, funnel part of their subsequent profits into the Dark Money which ensures the re-election of those who conspired to bring about these conditions. For profit technical schools and “colleges” must be regulated under strict standards or put out of business.

During my federal service I met with the Vice President for Education of one of the largest and most well known corporations in America. He cited many examples of his company’s efforts to re-train, even to completely pay for a full college education, employees who, having been hired on the basis of their “graduation” from these degree mills found themselves utterly unable to do the work for which they were hired. He cited several class action suits being prepared by employees against these mills. Yet, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, has blocked any means of financial restitution for these now employment-disabled workers. These “colleges and universities” must meet accreditation standards or cease operation.

The first two years, or the period necessary to acquire professional certification through an accredited technical/vocational school should be tuition free for students who have passed adequate and proper admissions testing. Community colleges were among the post-secondary institutions at which I have taught. These colleges typically offer a two track program: the Associate of Arts for students intending to transfer to a four year school; and, the Associate of Science for students seeking professional certification in an occupation. Remarkably, a common denominator among these schools is the shockingly great disparity between those students who declare intent to continue to a four year degree and those students who actually do. Given that the Associate of Arts is functionally meaningless in most career tracks, money that would have been expended in tuition and fees remission for the A.A. should be held in escrow conditional upon the completion of a four year degree. The money would then be paid directly to the school.

The money earmarked for tuition and fees remission for the Junior and Senior years of a four year program should also be held in escrow and released upon completion of the degree. Again, the money would then be paid to the school.

Those students experiencing financial hardship or inability to pay will be examined for their ability to complete a program and, if satisfactory, awarded tuition and fee remission contingent upon yearly submission of copies of tax returns and upon submission of semester grades. Students dropping out of programs will be offered a hearing to explain why. Those students presenting proof of acceptable reasons, such as a health crisis for themselves or close family, will be exempted from repayment of tuition and fees. Those failing to provide adequate reasons will receive a judgment against them requiring full repayment of tuition and fees up to their point of departure. Falsification of reasons will result in criminal charges for fraud.

Under the current administration the taxpayers have seen hundreds of billions of tax breaks go to corporations, including of course the Trump conglomerate, and to the very ultra wealthiest of individuals, including friends and family of the “President”. To offset this loss of tax income this government has canceled to 2.1% yearly raise for federal workers and the locality adjustment supplement. It is also devising ways to drastically cut MediCare and MediCaid and funding for dozens of programs and agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, and the State Department. We can easily afford to roll back these egregious thefts of public money, especially when we come to understand that money is not wealth. Sitting alone on an island with trunks stuffed with money will teach that lesson quickly enough. Wealth lies in human potential, not in pieces of paper. Our country is squandering its wealth in the quest for a fantasy.

These are just a few ideas. I do not doubt there are other possibilities I have not included. I initiated this blog in hopes of interaction with readers. Hopefully, among the many readers in so many countries around the world there will be those who will participate in this discussion.

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9 Comments
  1. Kathy O. permalink

    Your textbook tirades were…and, I seldom use this word…legendary.

    I, too, have been thinking about education in the U.S. Education should be considered the most crucial element of infrastructure in this country. I’m turning over the economic impact of this, but as yet, I’ve not reseached it. During economic reversals a quick, but perhaps not long-lasting fix has been initiating public works projects…bridges, ports…conventional infastructure. Economic prosperity/equality through affordable education? Save the country one brain, as well as a brick, at a time?

    Where I worked, we shied away from Dean’s list grads, prefering to hire B/C GPA range students.

  2. Thank you, Kathy. We share an appreciation of, and therefore a concern for education especially if it unlocks and develops intelligence. It is commonly said now, and apparently true, that we are living with a War on Science. Obviously, someone is afraid of an educated, intellectual population.

    I’ve long wanted to further develop the concept of a country’s strength lying in its intellectual resources, and may yet venture into a further tirade. For now I would simply say it does not take much intelligence to accurately put a bullet into an oncoming combatant, but it takes intelligence, training, and technology to mount a defense against a well trained cadre of hackers which can shut down infrastructure with a few keystrokes, blind an army on the battlefield, or cause an ill educated populace to elect a demented buffoon to the most powerful office on Earth. Oh, wait. They’ve already done that……….

  3. Doug Harper permalink

    Marco, as an outsider I’m somewhat loathe to comment on domestic issues, so will keep it very general. The US ultimately will have to incorporate at least some of your ideas or fall back with respect to those nations it sees as enemies, starting with China. Just as countries that don’t value full participation of women, LGBT, and of course those who aren’t born to wealth, etc. will continue to fall back compared to those that embrace these groups; the US will discover that sooner, probably not later, they will lead only in the manufacture of weaponry.

    I admire and respect your personal attempts to address these wrongs.

    • Thank you, Doug. You accurately point out the fall back going on currently. And, making matters worse, the misguided trade wars currently escalating will soon prove your prediction of the U.S. leading only in weapons production prescient. We invest in bombs, not brains. The growing danger is that this administration will become desperate enough to use those bombs.

      Thanks again, Marco

  4. To put this on a personal level, my brilliant granddaughter in twelve years old and in the seventh grade. Hers is a good school, and it and the collegiate high school with which it is affiliated are known for providing “full ride” scholarships for their students. Morgan is doing well in her studies, and if these scholarships continue to be available, she is likely to be awarded one of them… but what if this possibility goes away?

    Neither I nor her mother are currently able to provide for her education without going deep into debt. She wants to be a scientist, and while her desired field of work may not be available when she is ready for it, I can think of no greater tragedy than lack of funds being the reason she was unable to fulfill her dreams.

    • May I also add that, no matter the level of financial cost or personal sacrifice is necessary to secure her education, and thus her future, I can think of no more worthy endeavor.

    • Thank you, Rose. I’m betting Kathy could give us some guidance on this. But we often read of many scholarships going unused because people don’t know they exist. I would suggest a trip to the library to check out the books outlining these scholarships and their requirements, etc. Of course, many of them are specific to particular careers and fields, meaning Morgan would have to clearly identify a field and stick to it. Nonetheless, 12 years old is by no means too early to start. Also, a good guidance counselor should have available the tests which help (not direct) young students in discovering the match between their interests and their abilities. Years ago one of these was the Strong Vocational Inventory, but it should not be used in isolation.

      • Years ago, I did some volunteer work in the career lab of a local high school, and while I had little to do with the students, I did become very aware of the process applied there, and of its importance. My granddaughter isn’t just smart, she’s highly intelligent. Just in seventh grade, she is already taking two high school credit classes. I would have to agree that it is not too early to start checking out all the possibilities.

      • I’m glad you had that experience, and Morgan is fortunate in having your guidance.

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