The Signal elephant in the room this week continues to be Trump’s grotesque phone call with the Ukrainian president, and the opening of an impeachment inquiry in response. The Noise is just about everything else: Giuliani’s inane TV appearances aiming to justify the unjustifiable; Lindsey Graham’s idiotic comment that the scandal is a “nothing burger”; Trump’s gratuitous but entirely predictable mocking of Greta Thunberg. Even Trump’s snarling, vicious UN speech in praise of nationalism and against globalism—which, to paraphrase Molly Ivins’s takedown of Pat Buchanan a generation ago—sounded better in the original stiff German accent of the 1930s.
Instead, I’m going to talk about our system of higher education.
Caitlin Zaloom, a New York University cultural anthropologist, has just published a new book, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost, that explores the soaring costs of higher education and the high levels of debt that students and their families incur to secure quality degrees. Zaloom’s book has become a sensation because so many people instinctively know that something is deeply out of whack in the way we pay for university education. Student debt has become a massive financial crisis, affecting more than 44 million Americans, who, between them, owe upward of $1.5 trillion.
The Ivy League universities moved in recent years to mitigate this crisis by creating debt-free undergraduate education for students whose families earn a middle-class income (c. $60,000 per year). And during this election cycle, some presidential hopefuls have put forward plans to limit the cost of college education and mitigate the impact of existing student debt. At the state level, California, New York, and, most recently, New Mexico have embraced proposals to provide free tuition in their public university and community-college systems. Some are means-tested programs; some, as in New Mexico, are universal. More states are likely to follow suit.
These are huge policy shifts, and yet they’re not getting the media attention they merit.
But it’s not only changes for the good that are getting lost in the noise. Largely hidden from public scrutiny are some really awful federal education measures. This summer, Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education was rolling back rules intended to prevent exploitative for-profit universities from bilking DOE and GI Bill recipients out of taxpayer dollars. Instead of limiting the power of these shady institutions, which promise the moon to vulnerable students and leave them with nothing but piles of debt, she has placed for-profit university lobbyists in positions of power within the DOE.
The same process is going on at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Director Kathy Kraninger has pulled back from imposing limits on student-loan servicing companies, some of which have a long track record of making it all but impossible for teachers to get loan forgiveness on their debts. In a classic case of getting the fox to guard the henhouse, this summer the CFPB hired a former student-loan company executive, Robert Cameron, as ombudsman to monitor student-loan providers.
Trump promised to drain the swamp. Instead, federal education policy is now actively rewarding the most exploitative actors in the business.