Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Student loans: Forgive and forget?

One of the great things about America, President Obama told students at the University of Colorado, is that no matter how humble your roots, you still have a shot at a great education. He also told students that his goal is to "make college more affordable."

Alas, the president's prescription for making higher education affordable seems likely to yield the same results as his plan for curbing health care costs - that is, it is likely to drive prices higher than inflation.

The nation's next fiscal nightmare may well be a higher-education bubble.

Americans now owe more on student loans than on credit cards. As USA Today reported, America's student loan debt is expected to exceed $1 trillion this year. Rising costs have left many graduates in a deep hole. Many of last year's graduates walked away with a diploma and, on average, $24,000 in student loans. The default rate on student loans rose to 8.8 percent in 2009.

Occupy Wall Street activists have been calling for forgiveness of student loans.

Congress already passed legislation proposed by Obama to cap some student loan payments at 15 percent of a graduate's discretionary income and to forgive the balance after 25 years. Thursday, Obama pledged to lower the cap to 10 percent of discretionary income - with forgiveness after 20 years.

What next, 5 percent and 15 years? "And we can do it at no cost to the taxpayer," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cooed in a statement.

"That is simply not true," responded Neal McCluskey of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. Taxpayers are on the hook for those loans.

Last week McCluskey put out a paper that concluded that when government bestows more aid, institutions benefit far more than students. The phenomenon predates this administration. The College Board reports that for the last decade, college tuition and fees exceeded inflation by 5.6 percent a year. That's where McCluskey believes increased financial aid goes.

"There is no question," McCluskey wrote, "that colleges and universities have been raising prices at a very brisk pace in recent decades and that those increases have largely nullified aid increases."

Rush Limbaugh delights in blaming the rising price of higher education on "greedy academics." Look at the salaries that California's public universities pay administrators. The new Cal Poly San Luis Obispo president is about to take home $50,000 more than the published maximum salary of $328,212. With federal and state student aid dollars feeding the beast, eggheads cash in.

The biggest losers are students who get sucked into colleges, because the federal loans look like free money, only to drop out of school. They get the debt, but no degree. As McCluskey observed, "We give money regardless of their aptitude to do college work."

The other losers are graduates with six-figure debt and little income. The White House is working on a "Know Before You Owe" project to warn students about the cost of student loans.

As a beneficiary of a state university education and a repaid student loan, I don't want to end a program that helped me and can help others. But like mortgages that fueled the housing bubble, there can be too much of a good thing.

The unintended consequences of the steep rise in government financial aid, McCluskey concluded, may well be "sky-high non-completion rates and rampant tuition inflation."

In his 2005 Stanford commencement address, Steve Jobs explained the economic factors that went into his decision to drop out of Reed College. "I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition."

He actually thought about the money - that sounds so quaint today. I am not suggesting that anyone drop out of the right school. I just want graduates to look back at their education and know in their hearts it was worth it.


"Exemplary" British headmistress who created 'culture of fear' among teachers is banned from job for life

A bullying headmistress who created 'a culture of fear and intimidation' for teachers has been banned from the job for life.

Debbie Collinson 'bullied, intimidated and swore' at teachers and encouraged staff to openly criticise each other. She told one 31-year-old female teacher: 'Have I made a mistake in employing you? I hope you're not one of those mothers who take time off to be with their children'.

Collinson, in her late 40s, even invited pupils to meetings where they dished the dirt on teachers in exchange for coke and doughnuts. On another occasion, she swore at staff regarding a school play and verbally abused a teacher when she requested time off.

She also urged staff to falsely improve pupil attendance records and test scores.

Collinson was headteacher at the 430-pupil Harrow Gate Primary School in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, between January 1, 2000 and March 24, 2010. Surprisingly in 2008, she was hailed by education chiefs for 'demonstrating the best sort of resilient and courageous leadership'.

But she was found guilty of professional misconduct at the General Teaching Council (GTC) in Birmingham on Friday. The panel slapped her with a conditional registration order, banning her from ever working as a headteacher again. However, she is still free to work as a teacher.

Chairwoman Dr Barbara Hibbert said: 'Ms Collinson's behaviour demonstrated a wholesale disregard for the standards expected of a headteacher. 'Fundamentally this case involves Ms Collinson's failure to properly exercise her position of authority as a headteacher. 'Either directly or by creating a culture of fear and intimidation, she bullied colleagues and sought to falsify records and test results.

'Such behaviour is clearly unacceptable particularly for a headteacher who has a responsibility for setting an example to others and exercising a positive leadership role. 'We consider that it is appropriate that Ms Collinson be allowed to continue teaching but in view of her failings in her role as a headteacher, she should never be allowed to hold that role again'.

The panel heard that Collinson would also reshuffle staff to different posts and assign them to different areas of the school as a punishment tactic. She even ordered teachers 'to make life difficult' for a colleague returning from maternity leave.

In a bid to boost the school's reputation, Collinson also instructed staff to amend attendance records and test results, and 'condoned giving inappropriate assistance to pupils in tests'. During the spring term in 2008, she gave admin staff 'no alternative but to falsify attendance records' after telling them a 95 per cent attendance record had to be achieved.

Between 2007 and 2008, she instructed teachers to amend the results of numerous tests, including KS1 Literacy and Numeracy exams and SATs tests.

Collinson has 28 days to appeal the ruling. She no longer works at Harrow Gate Primary School but it is not known if she is teaching elsewhere.


IQ tests "incorrect" in China too

Education authorities have halted intelligence quotient (IQ) tests for students with low examination scores in Wuxi, East China's Jiangsu province.

Since January, some 500 primary school students with below-average exam scores have been told by teachers to take IQ tests at the Wuxi Children's Hospital, according to the Jiangnan Evening News, a Wuxi-based newspaper.

Zeng Laiyu, mother of a 7-year-old boy, said she was upset to get a phone call from her son's teacher in early October asking that the student have his IQ tested.

"My son is just as bright as the other students. He only got a 70 in math because he acts up in class instead of listening to the teachers. It is unfair and unethical for a teacher to ask my son to prove he's not smart," said Zeng.

Zeng said she didn't have her son's IQ tested, calling the request "simply absurd".

Zhang Feng, director of the children's healthcare department at the hospital, refused to comment on Sunday on IQ tests conducted in the department.

Zhang was quoted by the Jiangnan Evening News on Oct 25 as saying that about 70 percent of the IQ test results of the students in the hospital were normal.

Some of the results fell between 65 and 70 on a scale of 130, while just a few results were below 65.

The regulations state that if a teacher can obtain a diagnosis of a student saying that the child's IQ is below 70, the teacher can apply to the school to exclude the student's academic performance from the assessment of teaching quality, a source with the Wuxi education authorities told China Daily.

In many primary schools in Wuxi, a teacher's performance-based salary is closely related to students' academic performance, or more precisely, students' exam scores, said the source.

"Teachers worry that low student scores would hurt their income, so they resorted to asking students to obtain a diagnosis saying that the children were stupid, which was wrong indeed," said the source.

Wuxi education authorities and the education supervision office of the Wuxi government jointly released a circular on Oct 28 banning such tests.

It is wrong to evaluate students' learning ability and potential only based on their IQ test performances, and it violates the rules of education to do so, said the circular.

Authorities will launch an investigation of schools and teachers that ordered IQ tests as a means of demonstrating low intelligence, the circular said.

Schools and teachers that are found to have taken part in this practice will not be eligible to be designated as excellent units or individuals in various competitions, according to the circular.


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