My old business partner and friend has a great saying: “unfucking is much harder than fucking.” For the past 30+ years, Repulicans fuck up, and Democrats unfuck. Clinton unfucked the “Reagan Revolution”, Obama unfucked the terrible Bush years, and Biden will be unfucking the giant mess left by Trump.
I think we’ll all agree that we haven’t gotten the credit we deserve for our unfucks. Part of that is just because it’s hard to frame and message unfucks. Part of it is because some of those unfucks will create small inequties as part of solving bigger ones. And a big part of it is that we’re never in office long enough to well and truly unfuck situations.
A case in point is the absolute god damned mess that unfettered access to student loans has created in this country. Whether it’s $10K, $50K or some other amount of loan that’s forgiven, somebody’s going to be getting money that someone else thinks is undeserved. Yet far too little attention will be paid to the forty or so years during which our higher ed system gradually fucked the poor and middle class.
I worked in a small rural state college financial aid office in the late 80’s/early 90’s, so I was there just when loans were getting out of control. Here are some of the things that we could see happening that just have gotten much, much worse:
- The Pell Grant program, which was supposed to let poor kids go to school for basically free, was starting to be outstripped by inflation and tuition that rose faster than inflation. So, kids who had no idea about the kind of commitment they were making were getting thousands of dollars of debt as part of their financial aid package. Yet, from the point of view of the school, it didn’t matter because loan money and grant money paid tuition.
- The Perkins Loan program, which was essentially a federal loan fund administered by the school, was grossly underfunded after the Guaranteed Student Loan (Stafford Loan) program, administered by banks and passed by Congress after heavy bank lobbying. But the Perkins Loan program was so much more healthy for the school, because if the school had good collections, they could loan more money. With Perkins loans, the school had an positive incentive to make good loans. GSLs (and their follow-ons) had no such positive incentive – the school just had to keep its default rate down.
- Single moms from rural towns would use financial aid as an adjunct to all the other programs they were receiving, making barely OK progress towards some kind of degree, but incurring (for them) staggering debt as they did.
- Kids from little towns would come down for a semester or a year, unprepared for college, flunk out, and go home a few thousand dollars poorer. The debt wasn’t crippling, as it is now, but it sure didn’t help them start out in life.
- Programs of questionable academic merit with fairly large bureaucracies were started routinely, with the goal of snagging enrollment. We had more-or-less open admission, and the incremental cost of adding students to the university as a whole was fairly low, the institution worked to get more marginal students in the door, and many of them were attracted by these new, marginal academic programs.
- The Community College feeder system, while in general a good thing, was always trying to create four year degree granting programs, again because students with financial aid packages brought in money to the community. These programs were tiny, and I don’t think the graduates were of as high quality as the graduates from a comparable program at our college.
- We were starting to see a few transfers from private for-profit schools and it was clear those kids were absolutely worked over by those schools.
The government has an obvious interest in a higher ed system that is somewhat efficient, that allows students to fail without ruining them, and where four-year and community colleges stay in their lanes. The rocket fuel of financial aid, from what I saw, fucks with each of those goals. Colleges had “free money” that made them less efficient. Student failure led to burden, and there was duplication of effort between two-year and four-year schools. Private for-profit schools probably shouldn’t be allowed access to federal financial aid — it’s just too much of an incentive for them to screw kids.
So, this whole fucking mess needs to be unfucked. The first step is to try to address the inequity of giving kids massive loans. It is fundamentally unjust to allow kids who can’t even drink legally to commit themselves to a lifetime of debt. Free community college is a good next step. But the real answer is affordable public higher education, just like the least-great generation, the boomers, had. Unfortunately, around the mid-90s, we just decided that couldn’t happen. Now, Democrats are stuck with yet another unfuck that will make a lot of people unhappy.