By Nathan Tankus, a writer from New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanTankus
How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) August 12, 2015
The above tweet is real and is from Hillary Clinton’s official twitter account. It is very difficult to express how appalling this sentiment is. It represents much of what’s wrong with American politics in our current moment. It is
a) an infantilization of your audience. Presumably college students are capable of forming words, let alone sentences, explaining their feelings.
b) asking about students’ feelings towards their student debt. What does this matter? Is policy based around people’s feelings? If people felt good about their student debt would it not be a policy problem? Feeling can be altered by drugs and other stimulants of all kinds. The obsession with subjective mental states in public policy is pernicious
c) What matters concretely is who is getting blocked from obtaining an education because student loans are used to finance education and the depressive economic effects (as well as social effects) of a large load of student debts nonadjustable by bankruptcy.
Under Hillary's plan, millions could refinance their existing loans and relieve the crushing burden of debt: http://t.co/A4pWb3xp6C
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) August 12, 2015
Of course the request for people’s “feelings” through “emojis” wasn’t about getting genuine feedback – obviously. It was about clumsily attempting to manipulate people’s feelings by presenting Clinton’s “New College Compact” as something to make students feel better. The “content” of her proposals are similar. The overarching theme is expressed in this quote she (or her staff) offers to finish a sketchy overview of her proposals:
I want every young person in America to have their shot at that moment. I want every hard-working parent out there to get the chance to see his or her child cross a stage — or to cross it themselves. America should be a place where those achievements are possible for anyone who’s willing to work hard to do their part.
In other words, what matters is the emotions you or your children feel being educated, not concretely what they do for you. Notice that she says “America should be a place where those achievements are possible,” not that everyone should be guaranteed an education. In our current neoliberal order I guess it is hopelessly idealistic to think everyone should have a good education, it shouldn’t merely be “possible.”
What of her concrete proposals? They are as milquetoast as this ending summary implies. For existing student debt she thinks that the existing loans should be refinanced at current rates. In the future she says that the government shouldn’t profit from student loans. At first glance this is very appealing, but what does this mean in practical terms? In practice it means tying the interest rate on student loans to the interest rate on government bonds.
Since this rises and falls with federal reserve policy, such a policy would directly vary the affordability of college based on Fed decisions. This is lunacy from a public policy perspective. A major federal initiative that is profoundly changed by what unelected supposedly independent bureaucrats do is at best a bad one. Why should interest be charged on student loans at all?
For those students struggling to pay student loans at all Hillary will enact a borrower “bill of rights.” As part of this bill of rights students will be able to enroll in “income-based” repayment options and borrowers in default will be given new “rehabilitation” and “repayment” options. This is needlessly complex and idiotic. We already have a much simpler, well established process – it is called bankruptcy. Currently the barrier for discharging student loans is unbearably high and loosening – if not eliminating – these restrictions is a much more direct proposal. Let alone writing down student debt en masse. This area is one where form (“she’s giving us a bill of rights!”) dominates over content.
Another major element of her proposal is “risk sharing with colleges.” The idea is that since colleges don’t lose money when students don’t finish a degree or default on their student loans they have an incentive to pump out “worthless” degrees. This would put “skin in the game” for colleges. At first glance this is appealing but on closer inspection it falls apart.
First, education is a “positional” good meaning schools compete much more on reputation and exclusivity than price. This means schools that experience higher than average default or dropout rates would likely pass them on to current students rather than have it eat into their “profit margin.” After all, most colleges are at least legally non-profit.
Second, default rates and dropout rates aren’t primarily under a school’s control. This has mostly to do with people’s ability to get a job or ability to support themselves during school. A society with much lower unemployment or even a job guarantee would experience much lower default rates and dropout rates and we couldn’t credit the schools for that either. Punishing or rewarding schools because you have failed/succeeded to implement adequately stimulative macroeconomic policy is terrible policy.
Third, this pushed schools to accelerate the process of shrinking majors seen as “unprofitable” and forever expand STEM majors. It is the essence of neoliberal education policy to see education as a process by which people accumulate “human capital.” There are broader social benefits (positive externalities if you will) to an educated citizenry that go beyond human beings’ use to an employer.
Directing our education policies with that in mind is awful policy. During times of high employment employers suddenly find uses for these previously “unemployable” liberal arts majors. To the extent that certain degrees are unemployable it is because of the arbitrary pickiness of employers, not the training they have received. Why not be picky if you can afford to be?
Focusing on form over content reaches its zenith towards the end of this overview of her “plan”:
We’re going to work closely with Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-Serving Institutions, because they serve some of America’s brightest students, who need the most support and too often have gotten the least of it
This is plainly offensive to students of color attempting to affect societal change around racial inequality. In policy terms it is a drop in the bucket but politically it is an attempt to appeal to white liberal guilt and offer symbolic – but not real – change to placate activists. It is also so overbearing and clumsy. It is hard to imagine someone outside of a very tight-knit, claustrophobic set of institutions and social circles that wouldn’t be embarrassed by such a heavy handed attempt to get support on the cheap.
This isn’t an overview of all of Clinton’s proposals but I think it covers the most important and salient ones. Overall her numerous proposals either pick at the edges of higher education policy or are actively wrongheaded. What’s striking about these proposals isn’t the fact that they are center right at best – it is that they are center right in a Democratic party primary. Presumably in the general election and certainly as president Hillary Clinton would run to the right of such proposals as is cynically expected in American politics. It is amazing to see Clinton already tell the Democratic Party base “nothing will change” on an issue which has gotten such grassroots traction in recent years. As Yves said, let them eat emojis.