Too Much Democracy

I have to say that sometimes market-obsessed conservatives fascinate me with their strange subtleties. Here’s Neal McCluskey, writing recently in Forbes (“SRFA Stinks“) about the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA). “SAFRA would direct $47 billion to Pell grants and require that grant amounts rise annually at the rate of inflation-plus-one-point,” Mc Cluskey notes.

“SAFRA would send about $9.5 billion to community colleges; $2.5 billion would go toward improving facilities,” he says, “and the remainder toward grants intended to push schools to improve their program-completion and job-placement rates.” And “$8 billion is slated to go to early-childhood education and $4 billion to repairing and modernizing not just public college buildings, but elementary and secondary schools as well.”

What could more conservative than promoting education, that bastion of boot-strapping American individualism? It’s a very commonsensical kind of proposal: if you get rid of the middle-men, that is, the banks who “process” student loans, you can take the administrative savings and use it to expand educational opportunities. It shifts money from one place– the banks– to another, more useful place– students and schools.

Eventually the banks will get their money– this will not change the regressive nature of the economy. If we had a “pay as you go” rule, this bill would pass muster. So why does McCluskey object? Here’s where the subtly really kicks in. First, he says, can they really save all that money by taking out the middle-men? “The cost of quintupling the volume of direct lending is, at best,” he says, “tough to predict, and bureaucracies have a strong, inherent tendency to grow.”

The health care debate has taught us that government administration– with its civil service salaries and economies of scale– is often a cheaper alternative. So that’s not a strong argument. I don’t find the “another government take over” line persuasive, either, and even McCluskey seems hard pressed to lament the loss of other, “non-government lenders.” McCluskey also seems to think that the capital markets are less competitive when one of the competitors is the government. That doesn’t make much sense either.

No, I think the real reasons have nothing to do with these faux-economic ideals. “This is especially troubling,” McCluskey laments, “because too many people are pursuing degrees.” In other words, to his way of thinking, college is already too accessible. We’re letting the rabble into the temple, and it’s costing us. “About a third of college students take at least one remedial course, only 56% graduate within six years and 29% of Americans have bachelor’s degrees even though only a quarter of American jobs require them.”

I wonder what he calls “remedial”– writing classes? Doesn’t that say more about the public school system? It’s odd and sad that we still don’t have a majority of citizens with a college degree. Isn’t that good reason to expand access? Why can’t everyone have a college degree, if they want one? What would be the harm? Maybe we would create some sort of critical, educated tipping point and people would read these sorts of arguments and just laugh.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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