Category Archives: academia

Four perspectives on student debt forgiveness

  1. Radical: Debt is the linchpin of a predatory global political-economic system (Graeber 2011). Canceling a portion of one form of debt strikes a blow at this whole structure. It demonstrates that victories can be won—particularly because the president was reluctant to take this step and did so under pressure. The victory will encourage people to think of themselves as debtors with political power, which is a potent identity. If canceling debt weakens the existing economic system (for instance, by encouraging individuals to borrow in the hope of having their loans canceled), that is a feature, not a bug. Another blow will be struck when other groups demand the cancellation of their debts as a matter of fairness. (“Biden helped the college kids—what about those of us with medical bills?”) This policy will look successful in retrospect if it turns out to be merely the first of many cancellations.
  2. Social democratic: The measure of a policy is how much it helps the least advantaged. However, it is wise to design programs to benefit relatively large and empowered populations as well as the neediest, so that such policies are enacted and survive. For instance, European welfare states rely heavily on value-added taxes, which are regressive, and they provide cheap or free college for all (including those who could have afforded college by themselves). Such policies have proven durable. Similarly, in the USA, Medicare and Social Security have been sustained, while means-tested welfare programs have been cut because they have poor constituencies. Forgiving student debt has the same kind of structure. According to a Penn Wharton analysis, people between age 25 and 35 who are in the bottom income quintile will get 13.5% of the benefits of the forgiveness, while people in the top 40% of income will get about 24% of it. The Penn Wharton analysis does not consider race, but NCES reports that Black people with any college debt owe a median $1,810, which is almost three times as high as White people’s median debt ($630). Thus the Biden policy should have progressive effects with respect to race (while also benefiting many White people and omitting Black people who didn’t attend college). This doesn’t sound impressively equitable; boosting financial aid would be a better policy. However, the constituency for financial aid consists of current or prospective college students who demonstrate need, and that group is too politically weak. Besides, the White House decided that Biden could forgive debt by executive order, while Congress would have to pass other reforms; but Congress hardly ever passes a controversial bill.
  3. Interest-group pluralist (Lowi 1979): Biden was elected with a coalition that included a disproportionate number of younger people with college degrees, and he performed best in the $50,000-$100,000 income range. Biden voters have diverse interests, but college graduates (and their parents) are more concentrated, better led, and more culturally and economically potent than other Democratic interest groups. As part of the governing coalition, they successfully demanded a benefit. Biden complied. Interest-group pluralism predicts that they will next seek other benefits for themselves, without supporting a radical economic restructuring or any serious attention to other groups, such as older people with medical debt or farmworkers. If colleges and universities capture some of the benefits of the debt-cancellation (by raising tuition in the expectation of another cancellation later), so be it: their faculty and staff are core to the Democratic coalition. This is what interest-group pluralism predicts. As Lowi notes, it does not judge, because it considers judgment unscientific. Politics is nothing but the clash of interests. Last week, people with college debt won a round.
  4. Market-utilitarian: Markets produce wealth; governments may use taxes and regulations to encourage, discourage, or subsidize behaviors when necessary for the aggregate good. Forgiving debt after it has been incurred cannot incentivize education, but it can create moral hazard, which distorts markets. Colleges will grab most of the benefits. We know, for example, that when the stock market boosts college endowments, those institutions spend the money to increase their own selectivity and do not offer more financial aid (Bulman 2022). Debt-cancellation may be inflationary, yet the biggest problem facing the economy right now is inflation. For these reasons, the policy is foolish.

I must admit I don’t foresee radical results following from Biden’s debt cancellation (per #1). David Graeber endorsed forgiving student loans (p. 544), but he expected a global movement against debt to take centuries. On that time scale, I am confident that our current system will change. But between now and 2024 or 2050–I don’t think the conditions are in place.

I am not equipped to assess mainstream economists’ arguments against the new policy (#4), and I doubt that we will know—even in hindsight—whether debt forgiveness increased inflation or tuition prices or created moral hazard (for good or ill). For one thing, the policy is relatively modest compared to other recent interventions.

I think the difference between #2 or #3 is important. A lot depends on how people—a wide array of people—describe and interpret the new policy.

If many Americans decide that the Democrats now represent college kids (#3), that interpretation will reinforce a class inversion that is one of the most serious threats to democracy. When the center-left party that is willing to employ government as an instrument for social welfare looks elitist, the right wing will offer chauvinistic nationalism to pick up workers’ votes. Meanwhile, a center-left party that depends on the votes of more educated people will drift toward elitist policies.

I know that many people with college debt are not “elite” by any measure. Nevertheless, favoring college education looks elitist when about 55% of adults do not hold a BA, and 38% never enrolled in college, yet almost all of the nation’s leaders all hold college degrees.

On the other hand, if Americans conclude from this experiment that their government can help people, and therefore it should do something for those without any college experience (#2), that would be a positive step. Americans will be more likely to reach this conclusion if, indeed, the government next does something tangible for working-class people without college debt.

The Fall of Robespierre changed history because of how French people reinterpreted it about a year after he met the guillotine. So too, Biden’s debt cancellation will matter because of the story that American tell themselves about it in 2024 and later.

Sources: David Graeber, Debt: The first five thousand years (New York: Melville House, 2011); Theodore J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States (Norton 1979); Bulman, George, The Effect of College and University Endowments on Financial Aid, Admissions, and Student Composition, NBER working paper 30404. See also: the social class inversion as a threat to democracy; a conversation with Farah Stockman about American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears; the weirdness of the higher ed marketplacethe new elite is like the old elite; etc..

bootstrapping value commitments

On the third day of the 2022 version of ICER (the Institute for Civically Engaged Research), I am thinking about the normative commitments of engaged scholars–their theories of justice or social ethics.

All research requires and reflects normative commitments. Even a highly positivistic study addresses specific topics and questions for a reason, whether or not that reason is acknowledged. We should be accountable for these normative commitments, willing to defend them in public, respond to criticisms of them, and modify them when the criticisms seem valid.

I don’t believe we have a right to “outsource” that process to other people. For instance, it’s not acceptable to say that the community you study has certain values and that you simply report them without influencing them. Whether you are right to study this particular community in this way is a question about you, and you are responsible for answering it to the best of your ability.

On the other hand, we can acknowledge our frailties and limitations as individuals. We have cognitive and moral limitations–in fact, we are foolish and selfish. It can therefore be wise to consider questions of justice in the company of others and to make oneself open to their views.

That raises the question: Which others? In the projects I briefly described yesterday, the community is the border region of metropolitan San Diego/Tijuana. Making oneself part of that community, and accountable to it, directs one’s normative reasoning in particular ways. That choice is debatable: some people would say that employees of California’s state university system should make themselves accountable to that state, whose southern border runs between San Diego and Tijuana.

Reflection on justice is a bootstrapping process. We begin in communities; we refine our sense of which communities we belong to; we explore what is right with other members of those communities; and then we reflect on whether we want to remain fully engaged with those communities or redefine our memberships again.

This process reminds me of a Reformation debate. In contrast to the Catholic view that the church mediates between the individual soul and the divine, Protestants said that each sinner stands alone before the Maker. Why then should people belong to churches at all? The canonical Protestant answer is that we are individually accountable yet we should also be humble. We need other people to help us see, or remember, what is right.

Perhaps this Protestant heritage biases my thinking (even though I am not of that faith). Although the moral individualism inherent in what I have written here is not accurately described as “Western”–it contradicts Western Catholicism–it does have a specific European heritage. Still, this combination of individual accountability with humility seems about right to me. And perhaps it roughly resembles the combination of dharma and sangha and other hybrids of truth and community from around the world.

academic freedom for individuals and for groups

One type of academic freedom belongs to individuals. A teacher, researcher, or student either has freedom or not. The question is whether academics may say what they wish to say.

This form of freedom is very important, and I am an avid defender of it, although it has some limits. First, academics shouldn’t be able to say literally anything as part of their jobs, including making demonstrably false statements. Second, it is not always clear when this right should become a positive one. Although I shouldn’t be fired for adopting a controversial position, do I have a right to be hired, published, or invited to speak after I’ve done so? (If I have a positive right to speak, then I want my invitation to the University of Hawaii right now.)

Although academic freedom in the individual sense is important, it is not the only kind. I have worked at universities for 29 years. Only for the last three have I had individual academic freedom, safeguarded by tenure and a right to earn my salary primarily by teaching. Before that, I was always involved in collective efforts–team projects–that had funders, staff, and partners. These projects involved communication and advocacy as well as research. I always had to be careful what I said because that could affect my colleagues and allies. On occasion, I said things that had negative consequences for our fundraising or other goals. Much more often, I held my tongue.

Only very rarely did I experience this situation as a lack of freedom. Generally, I thought of myself and my colleagues as being free in the political sense of the word. We could collaboratively develop and implement strategies to influence society. People who opposed us weren’t violating our freedom; they were freely acting at odds with us. Much more common than actual opposition were decisions not to support us for various reasons. If (for instance) someone chose not to approve a grant proposal that we had submitted, that was not a violation of our rights. The alternative would have been to fund us and reject someone else. We operated in a controversial space with numerous decision-makers and finite resources. To the extent that I complained about limitations on our liberty or rights, it was only when arbitrary–from my perspective–bureaucratic rules interfered. I suppose I would have cried foul if administrators within our own institution had blocked us because of their beliefs, but then I would have been complaining about their overstepping their specific responsibilities. More generally, I expected opposition and competition and didn’t think of those as threats to our freedom.

If you want a classic framework for this distinction, Benjamin Constant’s will serve. Normal academic freedom is an example of what Constant called the “liberty of the moderns.” The freedom to collaborate in a contested space is the “liberty of the ancients.”

I think there are epistemological as well as ethical reasons to enhance collaborative, applied forms of research as complements to individual scholarship.* These approaches come under such headings as “transdisciplinary research,” “civically engaged research,” “community-based participatory research” (CPBR), and “participant-action research” (PAR). For such efforts, we need a robust account of academic freedom as the ability to build things together, often in the face of opposition that is legitimate. The question cannot be whether an individual is permitted to say what is in that person’s mind. It should become a question about the resources and rewards available to groups of people who seek to co-create knowledge and thereby change the world.

According to this theory, when the NIH, the Ford Foundation, or the American Political Science Association increases its support for engaged research, freedom is enhanced. (Support can mean money, training–like ICER–or recognition.) However, there will never be enough resources to allow every group to undertake every project it wants to do. Many applicants will be rejected; in fact, competition is desirable. Freedom of this kind is not a yes-or-no matter but an outcome of wise institutional design and allocation of resources.

*See civically engaged research in political science; how to keep political science in touch with politicsmethods for engaged researchwhat must we believe?civically engaged research in political sciencewhat gives some research methods legitimacy?; etc.

Society is corrupt? Found a new college!

I have all kinds of (unoriginal) doubts about the new venture called University of Austin. The promise to create a novel financial model sounds empty until they actually describe it. (Since more than 3,500 US colleges and universities compete today, I would guess that great ideas for saving money have already been tried.) At least in Bari Weiss’ version, the case for a new university rests on a damning portrait of the existing ones that doesn’t match what I observe. And, as someone who values freedom of expression and robust debate, I don’t see a serious effort to grapple with the challenges to freedom, such as directives by donors and foundations, state regulations, the decline of tenure, and shrinking liberal arts enrollments. (Liberal arts courses are the most natural homes of vibrant debate.)

On the other hand, there is nothing more traditional than a group of Americans issuing a jeremiad against their doomed and corrupt society and founding a new college as a solution. That describes Calvinist pilgrims, Jeffersonian democrats, Catholic immigrants, Midwestern progressives, formerly enslaved people, Mormons in Utah, boosters of new Western states, sixties idealists, fundamentalist revivalists, and more.

If anything, it is disappointing that the rate of founding new colleges and universities has slowed so much. Many of the new ones appear to be conventional branch-campuses of existing state systems–important for meeting demand but not necessarily innovations.

Fig 1, shows that the total number of colleges and universities rose rapidly from 1918 to 1998 but peaked around 2013 and has fallen since.

Data from Thomas D. Snyder, 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1993 (to 1970) and NCES Digest of Education Statistics, 2019 (NCES 2021-009) after that date

That graph does not adjust for population growth. If we value choice and innovation, we might like to see more colleges and universities per capita, which would mean fewer people per existing colleges (shown in my second graph).

The nineteenth century actually exhibited a worsening of this measure, because population growth outpaced even the rapid formation of new institutions. Much of the 20th century saw improvement, although the number of new institutions could not quite keep up with the Baby Boom in the 1960s. Of late, we have seen more people per college.

Same data as fig. 1, with population adjustments by author

The total number of colleges and universities that are open in a given year doesn’t quite indicate the rate of foundings, because older institutions go out of business. Tewksbury (1932) estimated that four out of five antebellum colleges failed. I can’t find continuous data on new foundings for US history as a whole, but the third graph indicates a rapid increase in that measure from 1820-1860.

Data from Snyder, table 27

I would place University of Austin in that tradition. I am not enthusiastic about their diagnosis or plan, but I think it’s appropriate for disaffected people to start new institutions so that we (and they) can find out what their ideas would really mean in practice. That is how we got the array of colleges and universities that we see today, from Oberlin College to Liberty University, from UCF (with 66k students) to Deep Springs College (with fewer than 30), from Notre Dame to Naropa University in Boulder, CO. I’ve mentioned some outliers, but the overall trend is increasing similarity or “institutional isomorphism.” I’m for innovations that mix things up.

See also: the Harper’s letter is fatally vague; the ROI for philosophy; rationales for private research universitiesthe weirdness of the higher ed marketplacewhat kind of a good is education?; a way forward for high culture etc.

the ROI for philosophy

In Monday’s Washington Post, Jon Marcus writes that “one of the most basic measures of student success” is whether a degree in a particular subject “will provide [graduates] with the gainful employment they need to make it worth the price.” As an example of a bad outcome, he notes that “a philosophy degree from Oberlin costs $142,220 and graduates two years later make $18,154, on average.”

This fact comes from a study by the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREO), which “conclude[s] that more than a quarter of programs — including most of those in art, music, philosophy, religion and psychology — leave students financially worse off than if they’d never enrolled.” I’ll raise a few methodological questions later, but first–how should we think about the values at stake here?

Preston Cooper of FREO writes:

This isn’t to say that lower-earning majors are worthless. Society needs artists and musicians. But low incomes for these majors signal a supply-demand mismatch. Universities are producing too many art majors and too few engineering majors relative to the number of jobs available in each of these fields. As a result, employers bid up the wages of engineers while surplus artists flood the labor market. The answer is not to eliminate low-earning majors nationwide, but to reduce their scale.

Many (not all) art majors want to be artists, and if artists’ earnings are very low, that suggests a problem. One solution would be to reduce the number of art majors. Another would be to expand society’s demand for artists (which doesn’t necessarily imply government funding for arts, although that could be one strategy). A third response is to expect artists to tolerate low pay–as we have long done. Which solution we prefer depends on how important we think art is for the society as a whole.

Liberal arts majors are different. Few philosophy majors, for instance, ever enter the job market for philosophy. They end up as lawyers, k-12 educators, business people, founders of LinkedIn–and of course, the proverbial taxi drivers who can quote Kant. The purely economic question is not whether we are producing too many historians, philosophers, and literary critics, but whether a liberal arts education has sufficient value in the general job market.

If philosophy majors get good jobs, that is because employers value clear writing and good reading skills, or because completing a liberal arts degree signals “cultural capital” and membership in an elite.

If, on the other hand, the data show that fields like history and philosophy produce low wages, that suggests two significant problems. First, if majoring in these disciplines is financially costly, they will be luxury goods that only wealthy families can afford–which is bad for the disciplines and unfair to young people of other backgrounds. Second, if we assign most of the society’s work of historical and philosophical inquiry and art criticism (etc.), to professors of those subjects, and if the number of jobs for professors is affected by the number of majors in their disciplines, then these social functions will be limited. We won’t get a very impressive culture under those circumstances.

We need philosophical inquiry, historical depth, cross-cultural understanding, and aesthetic excellence. Those ideals would not, by themselves, justify liberal arts majors that turn out to be costly for individuals. After all, there are other ways for a society to inquire into philosophical questions than to educate a very small number of undergraduates as philosophy majors. I am especially interested in strengthening the liberal arts outside of academia. (See a way forward for high culture.) We could consider organizing undergraduate education in ways that did not depend on majors. However, as long as we are not actually implementing any alternative strategy for producing excellent forms of culture, then poor financial returns to liberal arts majors would be a problem.

But is the empirical finding correct? The lifetime returns for a philosophy degree vary enormously by institution. According to the FREO study, majoring in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania would net you a handsome $1,250,711 over your lifetime, but a philosophy degree from Loyola University Chicago would cost you $419,352 compared to not having a degree at all. From those two examples, one might hypothesize that philosophy pays at highly prestigious institutions, but if that’s a trend, it admits much variation. Philosophy majors from Illinois State do pretty well (ROI = $197,864), while graduates of the excellent NYU department are $259,265 worse off for having obtained a BA. This looks like noise.

One solution would be to combine the people with a given major from all universities. Apparently, 80% of philosophy & religious studies programs have negative returns if you remove financial aid and assume that students must pay the whole cost. But with a variance among philosophy programs of nearly $1.7 million–from very profitable to very costly–I am somewhat skeptical about the meaning of this aggregate statistic.

Also, the FREO study assumes (with some grounding in previous research) that 80% of the benefit of a graduate degree over a BA is attributable to the graduate degree. But it could be that majors in subjects like philosophy help students to obtain valuable professional degrees next. If that is true, the study underestimates their economic returns.

In any case, the economic question is not the only one to consider. To me, the really important question is how our society as a whole addresses ethical, interpretative, aesthetic, and conceptual matters. Offering liberal arts majors and using the revenue to fund scholarship in those disciplines is only one model. It may be a flawed one. But if it is flawed, we need better ways to accomplish the task.

See also: rationales for private research universities; the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace; David Brooks/Pierre Bourdieu; what kind of a good is education?