What if student loan forgiveness were tied to public college costs?

Some American politicians want to forgive all student loan debt. I disagree with this notion, mostly because I think many private colleges are now charging a ridiculous, inflated price, not supported by evidence of their inherent value to the individual or to society.

I am all in for learning. I want more kids to earn the benefit of a meaningful education that supports their personal and career goals. I believe that our entire society would benefit if we did a better job teaching our children, from cradle to adulthood.

I agree that our current system is dysfunctional. My opinion is that reforms should aim to correct something more fundamental than the particular loans taken by students who have already left the system. The pricing structure for a university education should be made more rational, not cloaked in additional government intervention.

I don’t want my government paying current “list prices” for private colleges for every student—already a narrow group, disproportionately representing our richest, most privileged children—and especially so when younger, more vulnerable pupils fail to learn in crumbling buildings with more attention paid to test scores than human potential in our mediocre K-12 system.school supplies - 1

That being said, I am also on the side of those who argue that our system is inherently unfair and biased against the scores of bright, motivated students often representing the first generation of their families to reach higher education. The financial aid system is byzantine; true costs of attendance are cloaked by “merit aid” and government contributions based on “need” can’t be assessed without filling out reams of paperwork.

The less experience one’s family has with American higher education as a system, the harder it is to understand any of it at a glance, or even with a great deal of study! Actual costs are opaque. It’s hard to even justify paying a $75 fee to apply to a university whose website says it charges $75,000 per year when your parents earn $7.25* per hour.

That those are real figures which just happen to look like an elegant visual numerical alliteration is the best thing that happened to me today.40 hours per week times federal minimum wage equals $290 gross take home paySure, fee waivers are available, but how many times does a poor student deserve to be reminded of his deprivation within a single application process? And high school seniors apply to around seven colleges each. math written out 7 times 75 dollars equals $525

Imagine being the 17 year old high school senior, living in poverty, who has to say:

“Hey, Mom, can I have two full weeks’ of your take home pay to buy the privilege of applying for the chance of spending more than five times your annual earnings every year for the next four years to get educated? Yup, that’s right, Mom. The webpage says the price for a college degree is 20 times what you earn per annum.”

Of course financial aid is available to those who qualify; the vast majority (86%) of American students receive some financial assistance towards paying for college. To qualify for aid requires one to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA.) That process takes about an hour… if you have ready access to recent financial records and tax returns plus social security numbers for both yourself and your parents.

Aside from the insanity of the FAFSA using a different definition of “dependent child” from the same U.S. government’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), there is also literally no recourse for a student under age 21 whose parents won’t provide their financial records for the purpose of filling out the form.

Per the Filling Out the FAFSA® Form › Reporting Parent Information page:

“…if your parents don’t support you and refuse to provide their information on the application, you may submit your FAFSA form without their information. However, you won’t be able to get any federal student aid other than an unsubsidized loan—and even that might not happen.”

Until you are age 24—if you’re unlucky enough to have unsupportive parents—unless you can prove via written records that they are in jail, that you had “an abusive family environment” (remember: proof required!), you can’t find your folks at all, or you are over 21 and also “either homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless,” it’s hard to know whether completing the FAFSA will even be worth the effort.

The travail of merely filling out the FAFSA, appears to prevent kids from under-served communities from even approaching applications to higher education.

Oh yeah, and the federal government audits a disproportionate number of financial aid applications submitted by young adults from neighborhoods where the majority of the population is comprised of people of color.

COVID-19 has increased the size of all of these hurdles, apparently. Rates of application to community colleges, for financial aid, etc., have all plummeted in 2020-21 for precisely those students who would benefit most by furthering their educations—those born under a burden of poverty, placed there by circumstance, but forced to carry it on each young back until the lucky ones access the tools required for self-liberation. Education is the most common lever used to pry that burden off.

Go ahead and add that loss to the half a million lives cut short, and tack the cost onto the pandemic’s final bill.

Pile of moneyIt is an indisputable fact that the United States has systematically de-funded public colleges and universities within the span of my lifetime, rendering even “public” universities difficult to access for all but the wealthiest students. To me, that represents an utter failure of public higher education, a human service that is so important to our nation’s civic character and economic growth that I would consider it part of our basic infrastructure.

By definition, I believe public education should be attainable** by 100% of the citizenry.

A recent Boston Globe article detailed a tug of war between the Biden administration which proposes $10,000 per student in loan forgiveness vs. a progressive position championed by Elizabeth Warren and others to forgive $50,000 per student.

Here’s my response: why not tie governmental student loan forgiveness amounts to public college tuition and fees? Whether this is a federal average, rates for institutions in the region where s/he got her education, or the price where s/he lives now, at least this figure would remain tied to some actual, real cost of higher education as it changes over time.

Yet that public tuition rate should also reflect an efficient system, one hopes, seeking to offer a good return on the state’s investment in its future taxpayers. Without the option for limitless borrowing to go elsewhere, the discretionary facilities arms race of ever grander stadiums and shinier, newer dorms to entice potential first years should slow, if not stop altogether.

Typical colleges would have an incentive to keep their published tuition rates aligned to what borrowers could reasonably find the means to pay. Elite universities might maintain higher prices, but their rich endowments would continue to make generous aid packages possible for anyone they chose to admit.

View of community college building on campusGovernment regulations tied to hard figures always end up skewed by inflation; income and prices change year by year, typically trending upwards. The Alternative Minimum Tax, for example, was designed to apply to very high income earners who were taking “too many” legitimate deductions, but now it routinely catches upper middle class, dual income families in expensive coastal cities in an indiscriminate dragnet while much richer folks pay money managers to hide and protect larger assets.

I’m imagining a scenario where a billionaire politician could pay only $750 in federal taxes while those of us earning far less pay many thousands more…

It strikes me as fundamentally fair and equitable for students electing to attend private colleges to remain entitled to their share of government help, but not necessarily more help than those who opt for public institutions. This would act as a brake on runaway tuition hikes overall while never preventing any private entity from charging whatever it wishes. That seems like common sense, and protective of the public interest.

Another idea that can only be addressed at the federal level would be to offer international skilled worker visas preferentially to companies that implement effective training programs for American workers simultaneously. Those same corporations could sponsor scholarships for domestic students—or create in house programs for local unemployed or underemployed citizens—on a some-to-one or even one-to-one basis for future hires. No reasonable person should expect businesses to hire employees incapable of filling the requirements of a particular role, but our government could ask that those allowed to important talent also take part in reducing that same need going forward.

The U.S. Government should remain involved in higher education. Without an educated populace, the chance that America remains a global superpower rapidly dwindles to near zero. Power—and the money that goes with it—flows to those who control the currency of the day. In 2021, information and technology reign supreme in that arena. The field depends upon a trained workforce to function, though, and there aren’t enough Americans with the requisite skills to fill open positions in U.S. technology firms today. I haven’t seen much evidence to suggest that those odds are improving, either.

The pandemic’s winnowing of the best and brightest poor students in the United States from the ladder of upward mobility via advanced degrees will damage our ability as a nation to compete in the global marketplace, and never mind the real, tragic human cost to those young souls. The ideal role central government can play in education is to ensure equitable access to it for the broadest possible swathe of the populace. Financial Aid is a means to that end, but the American version is a tool that requires sharpening to be used to better effect.

In the meantime, if you are trying to figure out how much college costs right now, be aware that American colleges and universities are required to offer a “net price calculator” somewhere on their websites. Search for it directly from your web browser as some institutions bury this useful tool deep under their admissions information. Also consider Googling the “common data set” for any university you are considering; this standardized form is where U.S. News & World Reports and all those other comparison sites get their college facts. Section H2 will give you a lot of information about how many students receive both need-based and merit aid at the school you are considering.

I’m fundamentally academic by nature. I left the workforce to devote many of my prime earning years toward the education of my own children. I believe in the transformative power of learning to change peoples’ lives for the better.

Finding an “average price” for college is not straightforward because of the obfuscation about which I’m complaining! Here’s an entire article going into detail about how “net price” differs from official tuition figures, and also separating out the living expenses which paid for by the same source: typically, financial aid. From that US News & World Report article, I got an average price for public colleges of $9,687 compared with $35,087 at private ones. That said, we must recognize that Harvard College’s 2020-21 undergraduate tuition may be $49,653 with fees of $4,315, while its actual, billed “cost of attendance” is $72,357. Tuition itself is almost irrelevant in this discussion, because that latter amount is what “financial aid” would cover.

Harvard hides its tuition information, by the way, not even providing a direct link on its admission page. I had to search for “tuition,” and, not coincidentally, that was the top search term on their FAQ page. Instead of making its price easy to find, Harvard inundates the admission seeking high school student with multiple pages extolling their rich and abundant financial aid offerings. That’s all well and good because such a large proportion of the student body receives aid, but it precisely underscores my point that the system as it stands is wildly complex at the expense of the well being of the student population.

* US Federal minimum wage as of 2020 is $7.25 per hour

** I specifically mean attainable financially here. I do not believe that 100% of the human population should attend traditional colleges and universities, and I think the push in that direction does a disservice to those with inclinations outside of the classroom. If it were up to me, we would have a national network of trade schools administered much like the community colleges, and with identical access to easy, straightforward financial aid for those who need it.

I would argue that it remains imperative for colleges and universities to maintain academic entrance standards. Some students will be excluded because not everyone develops the intellectual capacity for the most abstract forms of thinking, but I’ve never seen credible evidence that this kind of aptitude is distributed inequitably amongst various ethnic, racial, or social groups. Rather, most studies on this issue point to the distractions of poverty and oppression as levers operating against the success of some. I wholeheartedly support reforms that provide every schoolchild with the same opportunity to reach his or her highest potential, but I don’t believe that every one of us was cut out to be a physicist, say, or a fine artist, nor would I hold those individuals up as fundamentally superior to the plumbers and mechanics who keep the systems we rely upon working smoothly.

Where is the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Where do you, personally, draw the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Merriam Webster dictionary definition of infrasctructure, the system of public works of a country, etc.I ask this sincerely, with no desire to engage in polarized internet snipe-fests, but in the spirit of attentiveness to what government services various individuals might deem “necessary” and which are “overreach.”

Even more interesting than the what, is the why.

Only deep ignorance of history allows one to pretend there’s anything universal about this question. Our republican forebears in Rome—whose architecture we aped in the United States capitol in part due to the Founding Fathers’ lionization of that civilization—prioritized very different governmental interventions than we do today.

Proving myself, as always, a true dilettante and no real scholar, I’ll begin by pointing to a series of mystery novelsthat I read years ago. They turned me on to a startling fact: the ancient Romans had no police force.

police car parked at justice centerRome, civilization par excellence, did not feel that it owed average citizens the protection of civil police. The military kept order to an extent that suited the needs of the state, but there was no one to call when your silver was stolen. It wasn’t until the great republic became an empire that Augustus formed the Praetorian Guard in 27 BCE… to protect himself.

And all this in spite of the fact that the Ancient Greek city of Athens had seen the nascent formation of a police force (c. 400 BCE) to keep order and arrest and manage prisoners using publicly owned Scythian slaves. Investigating and detecting crime, in the ancient world, was the responsibility of individual free citizens.

So, is a police force a basic piece of infrastructure, a right that should be available to all, or is investigation and detection by paid government agents an imposition against individual freedoms as the Romans seemed to believe?

In spite of our turbulent times and the fraught political environment, I’ll admit it: I think this is a fascinating question. In a democracy, it is, in fact, the duty of every citizen to ponder these essential assumptions.

Do modern American people on the right and on the left really have such different ideas about what a government ought to do, or are our differences more about degree and descriptive nomenclature?

Continue reading

Treason in the U.S. Senate & rioters storming the Capitol

Be aware of the following feckless U.S. Senators:

  • Ted Cruz (R-Texas),
  • Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), ?
  • James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), ?
  • Steve Daines (R-Montana),
  • John Kennedy (R-Louisiana),
  • Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), ?
  • and Mike Braun (R-Indiana),

and Senators-Elect:

  • Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming),
  • Roger Marshall (R-Kansas),
  • Bill Hagerty (R-Tennessee), ?
  • and Tommy Tuberville (R-Alabama)

These Members of Congress signed a posted statement inciting violence in my nation’s capitol today. Lawless Trump supporters have even breached the Capitol Building itself, forcing the U.S. Senate and House to bar their doors and interrupt their proceedings at around 14:30 on January 6, 2021.

Official Election Mail trademark authorized by US Postal ServiceThe Senators’ statement pretends that there remains valid and significant contention about the results of our November 2020 election. These men and women are intentionally ignoring the fact that our courts have already acted in accordance with the law and found no legal justification for further action regarding purported irregularities.

2% of Americans believe the Earth is flat in spite of evidence to the contrary being plainly visible to the naked eye at sea or from a plane; the fact that a population being fed a steady diet of misinformation by social- and partisan media doubts reality makes it no wonder that, as per the Senators’ statement, “39% of Americans believe ‘the election was rigged.’

By your own admission in your statement, then, Senators, 61% of Americans must believe the election was valid. With the majority holding such an opinion, how do you justify encouraging rioting in the streets of Washington, D.C. and the interruption of the work of our nation’s government?

By continuing to defy the United States Constitution to which they’ve sworn allegiance, our laws, and the reasoned decrees of our state and federal judges, the Senators I’ve listed are feeding their constituents’ inflated paranoia, not doing their jobs as duly elected representatives.

Trump is attempting a coup. These Senators are complicit.

By all means, the Feckless Eleven—and others like freshman Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.)—are entitled to hold opinions and do their own research into how, when, and why our elections are imperfect. If they find any actual evidence of wrongdoing, they should bring it to the attention of the courts. It’s hard not to ask, however:

If they sincerely doubt the results of November’s ballots, how do the four newly elected Senators feel justified in showing up in Washington, D.C. at all? By their own logic, they have not received any mandate from their respective constituencies!

If [Senators-elect Lummis, Marshall, Hagerty, Tuberville, and Hawley] sincerely doubt the results of November’s ballots, how do [they] feel justified in showing up in Washington, D.C.?

Perhaps these treacherous Senators should use their own funds to continue investigating, if they sincerely believe there really are unsettled questions; their frequently seditious* states are also free to launch investigations from their own budgets. After all, elections in the United States of America are conducted by the states, each with its own local authority.

One might suppose the representatives of states known to still promote the idea that the Civil War was primarily about States’ Rights’ as opposed to slavery could comprehend this distinction.

These so-called Senators will earn a salary of at least $174,000 per annum to defend the U.S. Constitution. I’ve read that one woman inside the Capitol Building has already been shot. What are the odds it was one of these highly paid politicians glibly spouting conspiracy theories for personal gain as opposed to an aide or security guard serving her country for minimum wage?

Shame on you, Senators. America will remember your names, right alongside that of Benedict Arnold.USA flag - 1

Senators Daines and Braun publicly stated that they would not opt to object to Biden electors after violent extremists stormed the Capitol. In recognition of the update, I’ve lined through their names in my post. Screenshot from NYT article listing 8 Senators and 139 Reps who objected to Nov 2020 electoral votes for president

The Senators after whose names I’ve appended a question mark do not appear to have voted to object according to the New York Times, but they were not included in the AP statement I linked to above.

139 Members of the House of Representatives voted to object; their names are included in the NYT link above.

For those who haven’t followed the news, I’ll include the relevant snippet of Trump’s speech that literally instructed his supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol Building. It should be noted that the man himself was lying when he stated that he would join the protestors in that action. Trump went back inside the White House and is reported to have spent the afternoon watching the chaos he’d instigated on television.

“…we’re going to walk down to the Capitol… I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your votes heard today.”

—Donald Trump’s speech of January 6, 2021 as reported on Snopes

* Seven states formed the Confederacy, seceding and initiating the U.S. Civil War: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana, followed shortly thereafter by Texas.

The short-lived Confederate States of America added Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina to total eleven states. Slave states Missouri and Kentucky were acknowledged as members, but neither officially declared secession. The Confederate Territory of Arizona is also worth remembering.

Half of the Senators I’ve called out in this post for their reckless, Constitution-violating actions hail from states with a history of rejecting the rule of U.S. law. Three of the others represent states did not yet exist as of 1861: Oklahoma, Montana, and Wyoming.

American Patriots must demand Legislators defend US law

A patriot is “one who loves and supports his or her country.”*

Merriam Webster dictionary definition of patriot from websiteI am a patriot.

Theoretically, elected officials in any reasonable incarnation of a democratic society should also be patriots. Of course, we know that self-serving, would-be autocrats abound in the halls of power. Human nature draws the worst—as well as the best—of us there. However, the U.S. Constitution was written as a curb against despotism.

Text of the Constitution of the United States in history bookYou cannot love America while wiping your nose with its foundational documents.

Two weeks after a nationwide election certified by our courts and by our own chosen election officials, only 17 out of 253 elected Republican lawmakers—6.7%—had publicly acknowledged that Biden defeated Trump in his bid for President of the United States. That leaves 93.3% of them derelict in their duties, openly flouting the oath each person swore as Senator or Representative to the 116th Congress: to support and defend the Constitution.

That’s not just a failure of bi-partisan politics worthy of personal shame, it’s the first step towards treason.*

Merriam Webster dictionary definition of treason from websiteTwo thirds of Americans voted in 2020; that’s a level of turnout that hasn’t been seen in over a century. At least 160 million members of the electorate are paying attention. Casting a ballot is important, but our work as citizens is not done.

I voted Election sticker - 1If you live in a district with a recalcitrant elected official, speak up as a constituent and demand that s/he acknowledge the will of the people. Take note of who’s doing his or her job, and whose back remains turned to what can be credibly described as an attempted coup by a blessedly incompetent strongman.

Fair-minded, law-abiding people must speak out now for what is right. In our silence, liars, cheaters, and extremists try to pervert American ideals, sullying our name. Moderates must now make themselves heard.

I respect honest disagreements, but I will never bow to tyranny.*

I acknowledge the will of the people.

I champion the rule of law.

I am a patriot.

Are you?

* Definitions from Merriam-Webster: patriot, treason, tyranny.

In 26 states, the ultimate person in authority over elections is him-/herself elected. Other states have an appointee in charge. A total of 33 states have elected individuals directly involved in oversight of their elections, sometimes via a board sharing responsibility with an appointed chief. In most others, the elected legislature or governor appoints someone to the position(s). Here’s a great resource for understanding regional election management differences across America. I learned a lot from it.

The gist of it all, however, is that the people in charge of our elections are themselves a product of our representative system; this is the way a constitutional federal republic is supposed to work.

Vote your conscience, by mail or in person

In another one of life’s little ironies, the pandemic brought me around full circle to voting by mail this year.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the first state that made all voting into mail in voting. I cast my first ballot as an 18 year old college student via the U.S. Postal service from a few thousand miles away from home.Official Election Mail trademark authorized by US Postal Service

Voting exclusively by mail in my home state was contentious for a few years in the 1990’s, but voters overwhelmingly informed the legislature that they preferred the privacy and convenience of casting ballots remotely as of 1998.

Oh, yeah, and my birth state routinely gets double the turnout* for primaries and other less sexy elections, so enfranchisement is definitely a thing. To be clear, every type of individual achieved greater representation via mail in voting in Oregon. People of different ages, political affiliations, races, etc., all saw higher turnout in my state, and fraud has never been a significant issue.

As an Independent voter who eschews the false polarity of the American political parties, I believe in enabling the enfranchisement of every eligible citizen. When anyone acts to suppress another’s vote, I assume that group lacks natural authority or the right to wield power.

Mail in ballot envelope labeled State Election Ballot EnclosedToday, I dropped my completed ballot—and those of my spouse, mother-in-law, and father-in-law—into an official drop box outside our town’s City Hall.

I sent an email first to confirm that it was okay to submit a ballot on behalf of a family member! This year would be a terrible one in which to make a foolish logistical mistake that invalidates one’s ballot.

Turning in my envelope reminded me of how, the first time I voted, it felt a bit like I was missing something by not setting foot in a polling place. Having voted in person for a couple of decades now, I particularly missed receiving my “I Voted” sticker.I voted Election sticker - 1According to the Boston Globe, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I will trade the fleeting pleasure of a celebratory sticker for the enduring satisfaction of taking part in a democratic election, however. I’m exceedingly grateful that I live in a state where everyone is entitled to the peace of mind granted by access to absentee ballots in the midst of a worldwide health emergency.

I voted early in hopes of alleviating congestion at the polls on election day. I voted early because there are no close races on my ballot that require further study or reflection. Now, I will hope and pray that every citizen of age in America will be given his or her own opportunity to do the same thing, and to vote his or her conscience.

Here are two great things I’ve learned about as I’ve read up on the current election:

  1. In my state of residence, I can track my absentee (mail in) ballot online. Check your state’s web site or this CNET article and see how you can do the same where you live.
  2. Teens can pre-register to vote in many states as early as age 16. By doing so, they are less likely to forget this important civic duty in the run up to an election at a busy time of life, like being away at college for the first time.

Screen shot of ballot tracking page from state web site showing state electionYour opinions matter. Your vote counts. Exercise your right to be heard!

God bless America.

USA flag - 1

* Compared to states using more traditional, in person polling places, according to this OPB article. You can see for yourself at Ballotpedia that Oregon has exceeded average voter turnout in every election since 2002.

According to the comments, however, a lot of Massholes think my feelings are stupid!