President Obama is a problem manager. Before he was elected president, he saw Guantanamo as a problem to be solved, and he promised to close it. Five years into his term of office, Guantanamo is still open; it is being managed.
|Ma'am, I don't solve problems; I manage them.
Likewise with the student loan crisis. Fifty Million Americans now hold $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. About 6.5 million people have formally defaulted, and another 9 million are not making payments because they have been granted deferments or forbearances.
For-profit colleges account for almost half of all student loan defaults. The Department of Education reports that about 20 percent of student loans originating in the for-profit sector default within three years of entering repayment, but DOE estimates that almost half of all students who borrow money to attend a for-profit institution will eventually default.
Now that's a problem. Is the Obama administration trying to solve it? No it is not.
Last week, President Obama proposed the creation of a college rating system whereby the federal government will rank colleges and universities based on their costs, their graduation rates, the number of low-income students they enroll, and some other factors. The President hopes to link this rating system to the federal student loan program, perhaps allowing students who attend high-ranking colleges to borrow money at a lower interest rate.
By introducing such a system, the President hopes to encourage colleges to keep their tuition prices down and stop the ever-increasing cost of attending college. In short, President Obama wants to manage the student loan crisis, not solve it.
Why is President Obama's college ranking system doomed to fail? Several reasons:
Colleges will just game the system. First as the New York Times pointed out in a recent editorial, colleges are very good at gaming the system when it comes to measuring college quality. We've seen how they've manipulated data to make themselves look better in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. They will use the same tactics if the feds implement a college rating system. So why go through this charade?
DOE doesn't even give us useful information about student-loan default rates. Second, DOE has shown itself unable to provide the public with accurate information about one simple measurement--the student-loan default rate. DOE only measures the number of people who default during the first three year of the repayment period--currently about 13 percent. But the number of people who default over the lifetime of the repayment period is much higher--probably double DOE's posted rate. And that''s the number the public really needs to know.
If DOE can't report an accurate and useful student loan default rate--a simple thing to do, what makes anyone think it can manage a much more complicated college ranking system?
Students and families won't choose a college based on the federal ranking system. Third, students and their families won't make college choices based on the federal government's rankings, so why set up a bureaucratic ranking system? Texas high school graduate are not going choose between enrolling at the University of Texas or Texas A & M based on rankings reported by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. They choose their college based on a host of very personal factors, not the least of which involves the varsity football team's win-loss record.
The Clery Act, which Congress passed in 1990, demonstrates my point. Congress passed the Clery Act in the wake of the rape and murder of Jeanne Clery, a freshman at Lehigh University, based on the belief that parents need more information about crime rates in and around the nation's colleges and universities. The law requires all higher education institutions that receive federal funds to report crime activity in their campus communities on an annual basis.
Although the Clery Act has some useful features--colleges are required to notify the campus community of ongoing criminal activities--I have never met anyone who made a decision about where to go to college based on the Clery Act's crime reports.
If students and their parents aren't going to make college choices based on the Clery Act's crime statistics, they are not going to make them based on Secretary Duncan's rating system. Does anyone disagree?
Why impose more federal regulations on a host of colleges that are doing a pretty good job? Finally, President Obama wants to impose another layer of bureaucratic measurements on colleges and universities that are already overly regulated. And a lot of these institutions are doing a pretty good job. College tuition has gone through the roof at the Ivy League colleges and other elite universities, but a college education is still fairly reasonable at the nation's community colleges and regional universities, like the one where I teach.
The growing level of student-loan debt is a big problem that gets bigger every day, and there is no simple solution. Nevertheless, it is clear that the rapacious for-profit college industry is the source of a lot of student indebtedness and about half of the student-loan defaults.
We won't solve the student-loan crisis until we bring the for-profit colleges under control. Unfortunately, President Obama doesn't have the political courage to tackle that problem. He would rather rank all colleges than put the bad apples out of business.
In short, President Obama doesn't want to solve the student-loan crisis, he wants to manage it--at last until his term of office expires.
Editorial. A Federal Prod to Lower College Costs. New York Times, August 22, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/23/opinion/a-federal-prod-to-lower-college-costs.html?_r=0
Michael Shear and Tamar Lewin. On Bus Tour, Obama Seeks to Shame Colleges Into Easing Costs. New York Times, August 22, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/23/us/politics/obama-vows-to-shame-colleges-into-keeping-costs-down.html?ref=opinion