Whether or not President Obama's speech today is in direct response to Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi's eye-opening must-read on the college loan crisis, it is great news that the White House is evidently now taking the crisis more seriously. The credit bubble in college loans has ballooned into a systemic threat to the nation's economy. Additionally, as Taibbi documents, economic and political trends are now converging to force an entire generation into a truly no-win situation: either don't get a post-secondary education and severely harm your ability to get a job in an already weak economy, or get a post-secondary education and condemn yourself to a lifetime paying off debt that you may never be able to pay off because the economy is so weak and your job prospects are still not guaranteed.
The economic trend that is fueling this perfect storm is about job credentials. Peruse employment data and you'll see that the New York Times was right when it declared that "the college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job." Though the Times notes that the weak economy means the job outlook for college grads "is rather bleak," it is even more bleak if you don't have a post-secondary degree.
So, in terms of job-market competitiveness, some form of higher education is now increasingly as necessary as high school education. Yet, that's the thing: in its financing models, America isn't treating it as such. Just consider the critical distinction between how high school and college education are funded.
The former is funded by broad-based taxes and few would ever suggest changing it to an individual tuition system. Why? Because we've come to view access to high school as a right. This decision is based not just on notions of morality (it's not right to force young people into debt) and democracy (self-governance requires an educated populace) but also on an economic calculation. Basically, we know we need a workforce with as many high school graduates as possible, and we've decided that forcing young people to go into crushing debt to get that degree could be self-destructive to that goal. It could, in short, deter many from getting the degree.
Yet, even though the 21st century economy is clearly telling us that "the college degree is becoming the new high school diploma," we do not have the same funding model or outlook for college. Instead, we still predicate access to higher education on a student's wealth and/or their willingness to go into crushing debt.
This brings us to the political trend that is contributing to this perfect storm. Even though policymakers obviously know higher education is, like high school, an economic necessity, financially speaking, they are still treating it as a luxury and not a right. They are treating it as such by predicating it on the user fee/tuition model rather on the broad-based tax model that funds high schools. Indeed, in embracing the loan/tuition model, even Obama's newest grant and loan proposals (which are certainly far better than nothing) still reinforce the idea that necessity-wise, higher education is different than high school, despite the economy telling us otherwise.
No doubt, shifting our policy outlook to see post-secondary education as equally necessary as high school - and therefore worthy of similar fiscal treatment - requires a paradigm shift in thinking.
It requires us to broaden the conventional assumptions about what post-secondary education is. More specifically, it requires us to see it as not just 4-year college, but 2-year community college programs, voc-tech ed and other such models.
It requires us to address the problems raised by Taibbi in his look at why college is so expensive.
It requires us to consider paradigm shifting steps in the right direction - steps like the recent pay-it-forward proposal in Oregon which would at least potentially broaden the financing base of college education, reduce default risks and sever higher ed from the rapacious loan model.
But perhaps most important of all, it requires us to reject the kind of pervasive thinking summarized by The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf when he wrote:
The notion that all students should pay nothing for college is preposterous. It would've been scandalous for me to get a four-year education for free in a state with homeless people living on the streets, desperately poor immigrants working 363 days a year as day laborers, crumbling infrastructure, and a very near future with multiple cities literally going bankrupt.
Friedersdorf (who, by the way, I think is a terrific thinker with whom I usually agree) is forwarding a specious rob-peter-to-pay-paul assumption that it would somehow be impossible for the wealthiest country in the world to both address poverty and provide free public education. In this construct, there's simply no way for America to, say, raise taxes and reduce wasteful defense spending to generate the public revenues to do both at once.
But even more problematic than the false choice is the insinuation that there can be no economic self interest in collective action. In this cynical view, universal free college education is not an investment in the nation's human capital, it is a rip off scheme whereby every person who gets a free college education is simply stealing money from those who do not.
But, then, we - thankfully - don't apply that kind of thinking to high school education. Even in this age of austerity, almost nobody would say "it would've been scandalous for me to get a four-year high school education for free in a state with homeless people living on the streets, desperately poor immigrants working 363 days a year as day laborers, crumbling infrastructure, and a very near future with multiple cities literally going bankrupt." So doesn't it seem ludicrously arbitrary to then say it about higher education, when the economic data tells us that both are a necessity?
Of course, as I've written many times before, universal free post-secondary education will not, unto itself, solve America's economic problems. To claim it will is to reinforce the insidious Great Education Myth. After all, without changes to tax, investment, trade and regulatory policies, we could have an entire nation of PhDs and still have not enough good paying jobs. But that doesn't mean access to higher education has nothing to do with a nation's economic success or an individual's job-market prospects. As the data prove, education is a factor.
America already knows and has built consensus around that truth when it comes to high school. Now it's time to do the same for post-secondary education.