Thursday, September 17, 2015

Obama promotes shell game in student loan system

IMAGINE YOU ARE adrift in a small, overcrowded lifeboat that is quickly taking on water. Calmly, the captain stands. “Don’t panic,” he urges, “I have this under control.” He then proceeds to drill a few holes in the bottom of the boat, “to let the water out.”

Ridiculous as it sounds, that picture captures President Obama’s plan for dealing with the student loan crisis. With borrowers awash in a sea of debt, and the system taking on record defaults, the president and his allies blithely concoct different ways for those borrowers to walk away from their obligations. Meanwhile, college costs spiral ever upward, and taxpayers are left with the bills.

For decades, the federal student loan system has proven invaluable to millions seeking higher education. But during the past 10 years, student debt has tripled to $1.2 trillion as the federal government has all but wiped out private lending for college.

Today, 7 million borrowers — nearly 20 percent — have gone more than a year without paying a dime on their loans. The number of such severe delinquencies is up 6 percent over last year, despite an aggressive push by the Obama administration to put borrowers into programs that limit payments and often forgive debt. This is not a sustainable path.

These “debt relief” plans, which cap monthly payments at 10 to 15 percent of discretionary pay, have seen record enrollments swell by over 50 percent in just one year. That’s fine for the borrowers, but often not enough to put a dent in the loan balance. In some cases, borrowers can walk away from their remaining debts after just 10 years. Obama will be long gone by then, with taxpayers left holding the bag.

Like drilling holes in a leaky lifeboat, capping payments represents activity that does nothing about the underlying problem: exploding tuition costs and a rising mountain of debt.

A recent paper from the New York Federal Reserve suggests that the government is a big part of the problem. By analyzing changes in federal lending limits, Pell Grants, and tuition costs, the paper concluded that the expansion of and access to subsidized lending has accelerated tuition increases at colleges around the country. It estimates that for each new dollar in subsidized loans or Pell Grants, tuition rose by more than 50 cents. As a result, over the past decade tuition prices have increased far beyond the inflation rate, faster even than costs for medical care.

To date, that’s a problem that few in Washington have been willing to tackle. At universities, the price hikes are consumed by bloated faculties, extravagant capital spending, and administrative overhead that never stops growing. These costs have little to do with the core activity of teaching, and everything to do with branding, marketing, and reputation — attributes then used to justify even higher prices.

Colleges and universities set tuition at what the market will bear. Aggressive, subsidized lending enables the market to bear ever higher prices. This is a problem exacerbated by government policy, abetted by universities, and ignored by legislators.

Instead, proposals keep coming to reduce payments, defer payments, reduce debts, and forgive debts. But that debt is owed to us. Forgiving student debt simply converts personal debt into public debt. Instead of students repaying the government, the government borrows to pay off the students. This federal debt must ultimately be paid back later using taxes collected from those same students.

That, friends, is a shell game.

“Student debt relief” sounds enticing, but “tuition cost control” is more like it; and it won’t happen until government stops feeding the beast.


Can evidence set teachers free?

The researchED conference, held in London last Saturday, attracted an audience of somewhere between 600 and 700 people. This is no mean feat. But, as keynote speaker and schools minister Nick Gibb said, the rise of researchED, a teacher-led organisation, reflects a new appetite for evidence-based practice among teachers. As evidence has long been used to impose silly practices on schools, the mission of reasearchED is to tool-up teachers so that they can challenge government dictates.

The conference covered a wide range of issues and subjects. Oliver Quinlan, who runs Nesta’s digital education projects, gave an interesting presentation on the ways ICT is changing education. He raised an important point about how technology is changing the nature of subjects themselves. So, for example, in music some traditional skills are still required in the syllabus, but the recording of music has been completely transformed by technology. To what extent technological changes represent an improvement is a fascinating question for future work to consider.

Other sessions, meanwhile, seemed to miss the mark. ‘How Does the Brain Solve Reading?’, run by Kathy Rastle from the University of London, was aimed primarily at advocating phonics-based reading strategies to improve literacy. However, her thesis was based on several unexplained assumptions – the most important of all being her claim that decoding phonemes, which is an act based on sensory input, is the same as accessing meaning.

Some of the best sessions of the day examined some of the broader political and philosophical issues affecting education today. Tim Oates, who was chair of the panel responsible for the recent review of the national curriculum, discussed politicians’ penchant for looking to the education systems of other countries without considering their particular cultural contexts. What’s more, education blogger David Didau explored whether teachers would do better to recognise that what they know will always be less than what they don’t know. Teachers, he said, should embrace uncertainty.

Didau raised an intriguing idea. Indeed, embracing uncertainty would be a helpful counterbalance to the unrelenting quest for the predictability and certainty that is associated with education research. However, I began to wonder whether the real problem is that the rise of evidence-based teaching has only encouraged teachers to ignore the considerable amount they do know, in terms of subject matter and pedagogy, and focus instead on learning evidence-based practice.

This was a thought that returned to me throughout the day. After years of evidence-based education policy, becoming research literate is an attractive proposition to teachers. It does, as ResearchED founder Tom Bennett explained, allow teachers to question barmy government initiatives. But I’m not convinced that becoming dependent on research and statistics will make teachers any more autonomous than before. A focus on research, even for the best of reasons, tends to undermine subject knowledge and experience. Moreover, the evidence-based model of teaching and knowledge has profound philosophical implications for the profession – it should not be so easily accepted.

All in all, it was a stimulating day. It was fantastic to speak with others who are looking for new and innovative answers to problems in education. But as much as researchED is helping some teachers strike out against government dictates, the underlying logic of evidence-based teaching needs to be further interrogated.


Alternative freshers’ week: giving the lie to the ‘lad culture’ panic

What do you get if you cross £1 pints, misogyny and a casual attitude to sexual assault? The answer – if you believe what the National Union of Students (NUS) and the government are saying about our universities – is freshers’ week. The annual welcome week for first-year undergraduates is renowned for its drunken debauchery. For many, it epitomises the ‘unsafe’ and ‘tasteless’ nature of life at a UK university. But this bad reputation has been called into question by the rise of the newest uni trend – the ‘alternative freshers’ week’.

In response to a rise in teetotal students, many universities are now offering a week’s worth of booze-free activities, as an alternative to the pub crawls and the club nights. Salsa classes, nightbus tours, theatre trips and ice-skating events are becoming increasingly popular, and are serving to expose the NUS’s hyperbole about how pervasive booze-fuelled ‘lad culture’ really is.

Universities are often depicted as unsafe and dangerous places for women, minorities and homosexuals, who are all viewed as potential victims of abuse or assault. Male students, meanwhile, are painted as untameable, sex-obsessed animals, who are driven into a feeding frenzy at the mere thought of cheap pints, casual sexism and the LAD Bible Facebook page. If people actually believed that this characterisation were true, it would be a miracle if anyone other than knuckle-dragging, misogynistic alcoholics ever applied to a university.

The fact that students’ unions across the land are planning their alternative freshers’ events in the same week the government launches its NUS-inspired inquiry into sexual assault on campus suggests it is time to question British students’ bad rep.

The issue here is that the definition of sexual assault peddled by NUS fearmongers is so watered down that innuendos and sexual jokes are lumped in with genuine cases of criminal behaviour. This serves only to give students an appalling and undeserved reputation, while distracting from the few cases of actual assault which rightfully demand care and attention.

Nevertheless, students face constant, patronising criticism from their students’ unions, which are supposedly there to look out for our interests, with the NUS having published a series of reports suggesting that sexist banter and a ‘pack mentality’ among male students are creating an intimidating environment for women. The rise of the activity-packed alternative freshers’ offerings makes you wonder how they even find the time to grope each other – in between dance lessons and games of ‘raveminton’.

This month, thousands of students will descend upon their campuses for the first time. Thankfully, they won’t be the intimidating lads the NUS believes they are. Ice skating, anyone? 


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