Let's Change the Student Loan Program

Thousands of British university students walked out of classes on November 24 to protest the cuts in governmental subsidies. Demonstrations in a dozen cities were mostly peaceful, but several dozen students occupied part of Oxford's Bodleian Library and protesters in London set fires outside government offices in Whitehall where two police officers were injured in skirmishes. Student protests earlier in November had been larger and more violent; in London alone 52,000 university students took to the streets to demonstrate against the planned cuts in educational subsidies. On December 9 university students in London again staged violent demonstrations against the aid cuts; police and student demonstrators were injured; and demonstrators also picketed the Rolls-Royce containing Prince Charles and his wife with insulting signs.

Student indignation about cuts in educational subsidies is not new. Many university students in the United Kingdom and other affluent European countries believe they are entitled to higher education as one of the benefits of a welfare state, not as a service that they have to buy from educational providers. Here is how one student protest leader put it during 2004 protests against tuition increases: "The drive to privatize public services, including universities, is very much a European issue," said Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, a British group that has organized dozens of demonstrations against tuition fees, including a national march on London in October 2003, the biggest student demonstration in Britain in decades. "There's going to be a shutdown of all higher education," said Ms. Telford, a recent graduate of the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. "Obviously there is a university funding crisis, but we think the government should go back to the drawing board and figure out how to get the money through more progressive taxation. Students shouldn't contribute in any way."

Requiring performance criteria of credit-worthiness for federally guaranteed student loans might motivate more students to become college-ready.

Before the current economic crisis this view received strong political support. Tony Blair, Labor Prime Minister, barely survived a vote of confidence in the House of Commons in January 2004, 316 to 311, because his government proposed tripling the tuition charges to students attending British colleges and universities, beginning in 2006, two years after the vote. These protests were not to prevent students from low-income families from losing access to universities; the increases in fees would affect only students from families that could afford to pay them; the protests were intended to uphold the principle of governmental responsibility for higher education. The current protest is over the identical issue: tripling tuition for some students.

The prominence of private colleges and universities in the United States may help explain why American students complain more civilly about educational cuts. American students (and their parents) expect to pay a considerable portion of the charges for tuition and room and board. British students don't. American students customarily work at low-level summer jobs or even at part-time jobs during the academic year to contribute to these costs. However, until the 1960s such charges were low because the operating costs of colleges and universities were low; professors received small salaries and administrations had not become highly bureaucratized and expensive--and income from endowments subsidized substantially the per capita cost of educating students. When the costs of higher education escalated in the 1980s and 1990s and American students were asked to pay higher tuition, not only in private colleges and universities but even in public colleges and universities where tuition had been free or nominal, American students were unhappy, but accepted the additional burdens of these cost increases. At the same time British, French, and Italian university students staged passionate, violent protests against reduced governmental subsidies for higher education; having a welfare state seemed to them a guarantee that education was a government responsibility.

The 21st-century passion for higher education is probably not driven by the earlier faith in the ameliorative potential of education. Shortly after the catastrophic bloodletting of World War I, novelist H. G. Wells wrote in 1921, "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." Wells was talking about education as a force for world peace and social betterment. He would probably feel vindicated by the interest of American college graduates in Teach for America, the Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, and other altruistic post-college activities. But Wells may not have anticipated that the majority of contemporary students would attend college not to better society but because they believe that higher education leads to more interesting occupations and higher pay--in short, for selfish reasons. Consequently, their view of the meaning of "education" is different from that of Wells or of John Cardinal Newman. These self-interested motives may explain views of education that Wells and Cardinal Newman would find wrong-headed:

  • The notion that mere attendance at a building called a "school" or a "university" results in knowledge seeping into the heads of attendees without serious effort on their part. Once knowledge seeps in, students receiving certificates or diplomas are able to compete better in the labor market.
  • The notion that in a decent society every child born into this world is entitled to an education. In practice this means that governments should be responsible for the considerable monetary costs of fulfilling that entitlement. Part of those costs is reflected in direct grants to students, part by grants to institutions, and in the United States by subsidized loans.
  • The notion that other competing entitlements--policing streets and highways, defending against terrorists and rogue states, fostering the arts, supporting scientific research, care of the physically and mentally ill, maintaining the criminal justice system and civil courts, and many others--are less crucial than "education."

Nonetheless, the clientele of American colleges is heterogeneous. A small proportion of students are indeed going to college for reasons that would gladden the hearts of Wells or of Newman, but many, perhaps most, contemporary students attend colleges without a serious interest in learning. For those, the contention of Charles Murray, that in cost-benefit terms they may be better off financially to learn a manual or technical skill, may be persuasive. Yet despite Murray, most students continue to believe that higher education is the best way to advance their occupational prospects. Consequently contemporary undergraduates, interested only in the advantages that a college degree is reputed to confer, frequently do not do the preparatory work in primary and secondary school to ready themselves adequately to learn on a college level. In short, many are subprime students dragging down the intellectual level of college courses, especially in the liberal arts and social sciences. Is this so bad? It would not be so bad if they were only a small minority of undergraduates. But they probably constitute a major part of mass higher education in the United States--with economic as well as educational consequences.

One consequence is preventing education from saving us as Wells thought it might. Even developed societies cannot afford grants to send millions of students to secondary schools and then to college as an investment in a more productive economy when the students are poorly prepared. Moreover, in the United States individual Pell grants have not been large enough to cover the tuition and living costs of students, and the shortfall grew as college tuition and expenses rose. Rather than increase Pell grants substantially Congress established subsidized loan programs for college students. The trouble with loans is that, unlike grants, which are gifts, loans have to be repaid. At the present time 70 percent of Department of Education student aid consists of loans, not grants.

Furthermore, Congress ignored the academic achievements and aptitudes of student borrowers in the student loan programs, as it had before for Pell grants. This time, however, the additional unanticipated results were more serious for the students themselves as well as for taxpayers. Marginal students, unprepared for college by their pre-college educational experiences, are trapped--they drop out of college before graduating or graduate without having learned enough to get jobs that would enable them to repay their loans. Many default on their loans with catastrophic personal consequences for them and, concomitantly, a heavy burden for American taxpayers. About $750 billion of guaranteed student loans have accumulated from past and current students, and estimates are that about 40% of these will eventually end in default. Unemployment rates have worsened this problem. Ex-college students--unemployed and in default on their student loans--often slink back to their parental homes and resume a protracted adolescence.

These considerations explain why a change in the federal student loan program can potentially produce more studious behavior from many students, not only in college but also in primary and secondary schools. If loans require good grades, good academic aptitude scores, and other clues to students' ability to repay their loans, students would most likely choose to behave more studiously because not meeting criteria of academic achievement and credit-worthiness would prevent them from qualifying for needed loans. Although students are more complicated, cunning animals than the pigeons that psychologist B. F. Skinner trained at Harvard a half century ago and although students have personalities that enable them to override reinforcements that control pigeon behavior, students do respond to the right incentives, as pigeons do.

My book, The Lowering of Higher Education in America, argues that requiring performance criteria of credit-worthiness for federally guaranteed student loans might motivate more students to become college-ready. At the present time federal loans, like grants, only require that students come from low-income families. A targeted academic requirement could achieve two educational and two economic benefits: (1) It would change the mix of student subcultures on college campuses and perhaps in secondary schools as well, reducing recruits to the fun subculture and making the learning subculture more appealing. Campus atmospheres would not resemble monasteries but they wouldn't resemble amusement parks either; (2) It would reduce the likelihood of students dropping out of college without graduating or graduating without good employment prospects; (3) It would reduce the rate of defaulted student loans, thereby avoiding delays posed by financial obstacles for reaching full adulthood; (4) It would avoid some of the costly taxpayer expense of making good on defaulted loans.

I am suggesting academic and other criteria only for student loans, not for Pell grants and other federal grant programs. This distinction between student aid in the form of grants and student aid in the form of loans was not an oversight. Logically it is true that grants without academic requirements violate the principle that higher education should not be an entitlement, only an opportunity, just as much as student aid in the form of loans does. However, for pragmatic reasons a stronger case can be made for continuing student grants without academic prerequisites than for student loans. Grants do not present the same dangers either to students or to the economy as do loans; they do not burden students with debts that they may not be able to repay and they do not burden the economy with complex financial instruments that can produce a credit crisis. Moreover, student grants that ignore academic merit are an expression of society's interest in making higher education available even to students who have not done well in high school. Giving Pell Grants is a societal bet that mediocre students can do better scholastically in the future, not that mediocrity is valuable in itself. Maybe they are late bloomers. Of course, mediocre students are only part of the population of Pell grant recipients. Scholastically excellent students from low-income families also receive Pell grants; but they are exactly the kinds of people Congress had in mind when authorizing financial aid to students.

The more deleterious problem arises when students who are economically needy still want to go to college, despite being academically subpar. What the Department of Education now does is offer loans as well as grants. What the Department of Education ought to do is to accompany the grants for such students with (1) a warning that in the light of their records, success in college is problematical and (2) a willingness to provide programs to improve their chances of doing well at the college they wish to attend. They are free to reject this offer of what is in fact remediation, although it should not be called that, and no doubt many students will reject such an offer. The symbolic point of the offer is to call attention to the fact that a grant does not ignore lack of preparedness; it offers a second chance to succeed academically. Getting the grant should not be grounds for complacency. Congress would have to appropriate funds to the Department of Education for establishing these remedial programs for underprepared grant students on more than three thousand college campuses.

Why should the Department of Education establish remedial programs for grant recipients with academic deficiencies when colleges already have remedial programs aimed at all of their students with academic deficiencies, programs that seem to work poorly? For several reasons. First, giving grants to academically underprepared students to attend college and not helping them survive academically is programming some Pell grant recipients for failure and dropping out before completing college. This certainly is not what Congress intended in establishing education grants for needy students. Second, a voluntary program has a self-selected clientele. Unlike college-mandated remedial programs, these programs would be designed for students whose previous academic records do not justify federal education loans. They are on warning that getting a Pell grant does not mean that they are fully prepared to succeed. Students who sincerely accept the offer of help are much more likely to succeed. Third, the financial burden of remediation is beyond the resources of many colleges. As a result, their efforts to repair deficiencies of student preparation are genuflections toward remediation but not demonstrably effective. Setting up separate programs for federal grant recipients with academic deficiencies would relieve colleges of part of their immediate remedial burdens and help them financially to deal with their other students with remediation problems more effectively. Finally, the emphasis of these federally supported programs, tied as they would be to grants to needy students, is success in college, not merely the repair of past deficiencies. Although the money will come from the Department of Education, the program itself will be designed individually at each college under contract with the Department, thus providing an opportunity for comparing programs that work better with programs that are not effective.

What about underprepared students who receive need-based grants to attend college but refuse the offer to participate in such special programs? Denial of deficiencies is common. As an incentive, the Department of Education holds a trump card. Grants for needy students are usually not sufficient to finance college without additional sources of funds. Students also need loans, and the Department offers subsidized loans. Federal loans can be allocated quite differently from grants. A condition for receiving these loans might be to participate in programs that address academic deficiencies or to show by improved grades that those deficiencies have been addressed. Students who cannot receive loans but who do receive grants surely receive the message that they have to do better academically to receive federally guaranteed loans. This line of reasoning suggests that grants can ignore academic merit without necessarily undermining the incentives for stronger student performance embodied in loans.

My hypothesis is that such changes in the way Department of Education grants and loans are allocated will be effective incentives for studious behavior at all levels of the American educational system. For primary school students also? Yes, primary school students also. Unlike pigeons and mice, human beings, even young human beings, anticipate the remote future and modify their behavior accordingly. If students wish to attend college and know that studious behavior is necessary to make this feasible, many of them will study more diligently. How many is an empirical question that will have to be investigated. But children are not free spirits growing up in the woods, nurtured only by wild animals. Most have parents who want them to take advantage of the opportunities that college education can make possible for a better life. How else can the overwhelming response of low-income parents for charter schools in Harlem in New York City and for private school vouchers in Washington be explained?

Calling contemporary mass higher education a catastrophe maybe excessive, but H. G. Wells certainly did not have in mind millions of students receiving loans and grants from the federal government to entertain one another and to go to classes when they have nothing better to do. Potentially the American student-financial-aid system can provide incentives to students to devote themselves to genuine education, to acquaint themselves ". . . with the best that has been known and said in the world. . ." as Matthew Arnold put it. That would be turning an educational misfortune into educational progress. Progress through catastrophe is brinkmanship of course--but brinkmanship is the way democracies lurch their way forward.

Jackson Toby is an adjunct scholar at AEI.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Melanie Kintz

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