Piketty on student debt

Thomas Piketty, one of the most important economists of our time, guru of economic inequality, offers some brief and pithy observations on student debt in American higher education.  Let’s break it down.

First, the general observation:

[T]he amount of household debt and even more recently of student debt in the U.S. is something that is really troublesome and it reflects the very large rise in tuition in the U.S. a very large inequality in access to education…

Piketty links student debt to mortgages, which is an underappreciated combination.  (Yes, I am still paying both at 48 years of age)

Second, student debt has reached crisis proportions.  Not just for the students, but also for the economy and nation as a whole:

[I]t’s not possible to have such a large group of the population entering the labor force with such a big debt behind them…

this is a situation that is very troublesome and should rank very highly in the policy agenda in the future in the U.S.

“It’s not possible.”  Are we approaching an economic and/or political limit? Continue reading

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Did we just enter the age of extractive democracy?

extraction_by FishhawkLet me turn my blogging in a somewhat more political direction, at least for this post.  Working on higher education as a futurist, I have to wrangle dozens of major contextual factors from the worlds of politics, economics, and society.  In the course of doing so a hypothesis has come to mind, and I want to try it out here.

The idea is that American society is becoming an extractive democracy.

Short version: our economy and political institutions are now constructed to draw money and other resources from the lower half of society in order to transfer it to the wealthiest.  It’s a kind of plutocracy.

Longer version?  Let me draw together the intertwining strands.  Ten of them, in fact.  Ferguson will play an exemplary role.

First, local governments have ramped up their extraction of money from citizens through fees and bureaucracy.  This is probably obvious to most readers, but let John Oliver explain.

Note that Oliver relies on what the nation has learned about Ferguson and surrounding areas.

Second, such practices scale up to the business and federal government levels, as David Graeber observes.  Hence the epic-Kafka bureaucracies and exfoliating fee-charing systems. (No, I haven’t read Graeber’s most recent book)

“Almost every institution in America—from our corporations to our schools, hospitals, and civic authorities—now seems to operate largely as an engine for extracting revenue, by imposing ever more complex sets of rules that are designed to be broken.”

Once more, Ferguson’s shakedown policies are in view, but here as microcosm for the bigger machinery.

Third, American police forces are increasingly militarized, as Radley Balko has most extensively documented.  This gives local authorities more power to extract wealth from citizens.

Fourth, financialization.  That means an ever-increasing proportion of the American economy is based on financial services, rather than on manufacturing things.  For a neat example, some readers may recall when General Motors made more money on loans than on actual cars.   Continue reading

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What American educational oligarchy looks like in 2015

It seems like the fact of drastic educational inequality is becoming more widely known in the United States of 2015.  At the same time, gaps of race and class are widening and normalizing.  And we refuse to do anything about it, basically, preferring to accept, if not celebrate our entrance into Thomas Piketty’s world.

Fieldston logoCase in point: a heartbreaking This American Life story, “Three Miles“.  Take the time to listen to the stream, or at least read through the whole transcript.  “Three Miles” follows several poor, nonwhite New York City people from being K-12 students to entering adult life, tracing how their educational fate was powerfully determined – i.e., restricted –  by race and especially class.

Listen/read carefully to this opening depiction of a yawning gulf between two nearly neighboring schools:

Lisa Greenbaum’s school, University Heights High School, is a public school. It’s 97% black and Hispanic. It’s located in the poorest congressional district in the country, the South Bronx.

Angela Vassos’ school, Fieldston [full name: the Ethical Culture Fieldston School], is also in the Bronx, but it’s one of New York City’s elite private schools. It’s 70% white. It’s known as a progressive school. One in five kids gets financial aid, which is helpful, because last year tuition was $43,000.

That’s where this starts.  Realize that UHHS isn’t the worst high school – there aren’t any metal detectors, for example.  We don’t follow the normal paths of UHHS children, in fact, but trace several extreme outliers.  Unusually ambitious and talented students, apparently well supported by their schools, aim for the academic stars, get broken, then fall back to where they started.

Here’s the main character of the story describing her reaction to visiting Fieldston:

Melanie I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we’re only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald’s or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we’ll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.

Chana Joffe You thought that when you were at Fieldston?

Melanie Definitely.

Continue reading

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One law school faces a stark future

Can a law school perform a queen sacrifice?  I haven’t been blogging about the law school crisis, although I’ve been tracking it for years (!) at FTTE.  So let me remedy that with the sad story of the Appalachian School of Law.

Appalachian School of Law_Sign_in_FrontASL faculty numbers have fallen to a stark level:

[F]aculty numbers have dropped from 14 full-time professors in the Spring of 2014 to eight in the fall to seven this semester, that’s down 50%.

Why?  Enrollment has plummeted as the law school crisis continued:

At the height of enrollment, there were approximately 150 students in a graduating class at ASL…

[T]he incoming class for 2014 … was approximately 45…

This has led to income reductions: “Revenue has dropped from $9 million in 2010 to $6.9 million in 2013.”

How is Appalachian Law responding?  One move explores affiliating with another institution, Emory & Henry College, about 55 miles away.  Another involves lowering LSAT demands from incoming students.

I don’t think they can cut more faculty and still offer basic classes, which means a queen sacrifice might not be in the cards.  As with Lyndon State, cutting back on academic offerings weakens a school’s ability to compete.

There are other examples of law schools being crunched.  Time permitting, I’ll blog about them.

(thanks to Shel for the pointer)


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Vermont college cuts staff, adjuncts, classes

Lyndon State CollegeLyndon State College announced a series of cuts this week, responding to all too common challenges in today’s higher education.

The Vermont campus starts by laying off five administrators.  Then the reductions continue:

Lyndon State will not reappoint some of its adjunct faculty, the college will reduce the number of courses taught by adjuncts and cut “overloads” paid to full-time faculty for taking on additional teaching responsibilities.

Why is this happening?  My readers will be unsurprised to learn:

Joseph Bertolini, president of Lyndon, said the cuts were necessary to address a budget deficit caused by declining enrollment… a $1.5 million gap between income and expenses…

At the start of the 2013-14 school year, Lyndon State had 1,519 students. Last fall the college attracted 1,430 students…

This falls just short of my queen sacrifice model, because no tenured/tenure-track faculty have been cut.  But it does include direct cuts to academic programs being offered:

Lyndon State spokesman Keith Chamberlin said the college was already offering about 60 fewer courses than it did in the fall. The new cost-saving measures, he said, will eliminate another 15 courses from next year’s catalog.

Now follows a realistic and disturbing comment: Continue reading

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Getting better news: my daily routine

Some of you know I make a habit of criticizing American tv news, because it’s generally awful.  After one such mocking a Twitter friend asked, “what do you favor for news?”  I decided to answer, because ultimately it’s a good thing for a critic of something to pose better alternatives.

Nearly all of my news consumption is Web-based.

I begin each morning with a run through a customized Google News page, on my laptop (if I’m at home or an office space) or phone (if on the run).  If you haven’t used this, and a shockingly high number of people tell me they haven’t, know that Google News is a meta-news source.  It trawls some outrageous number of news sites (newspaper, tv, radio, Web) to build immediate models of topics news people are focusing on.  So in second Google News gives me the closest thing we have to a snapshot of what the world is thinking about.

And I do mean “world”, as GN scrapes news services of many nations.  When I find a story I’m interested in (for example, this morning it’s the Aaron Schock debacle and the German Blockupy unrest) I can quickly find multiple links to diverse sources, yielding a variety of perspectives.  All of this beats the heck out of CNN or the New York Times, in part because it includes, but is not limited to,  the most useful content from those sources.

Google News

Moreover, you can customize your Google News.  That means killing off topics you don’t care about (for me: sports, celebrity gossip) and adding new topics you do (my Vermont town, space exploration, energy, liberal education).  GN will quietly offer new topics, which you can refuse or accept.  You can even toggle how many stories you want from a given source, or for a specific topic. This makes for a more efficient news consumption experience, and a more useful one.  There is a risk of too much filtering, which I’ll address below. Continue reading

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Privatizing community college in Arizona

Last month I noted a wave of Republican-led proposals to seriously cut financing for public colleges and universities.  I suggested that these moves would force more queen sacrifices from a great deal of campuses. Arizona was part of that wave, with its governor Ducey seeking $75 million in reductions.  This week that state considered even further reductions:

The governor originally wanted to cut their budgets by $75 million, but the new deal would cut state appropriation by $104 million, or 14 percent of their state support.

And now the budget has this unusual goal: removing all state support for many community colleges.

the final deal would cut an additional $9 million, to eliminate all state funds. Small community college districts would continue to receive money, but the large districts that would now have no state funds include the mammoth Maricopa and Pima districts.

Late Friday night the Arizona legislature approved the plan, which included “cuts [of] nearly $100 million from state schools.” (More than the initial Ducey proposal, but not quite what was on the table last week) Therefore those community college systems will naturally have to boost tuition and/or cut programs.

Why did Arizona do this?  Here’s a useful sample of the privatizing argument:

Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Governor Ducey, defended the cuts, telling The Arizona Republic that the budget plan “protects taxpayers.”

Added Scarpinato: “We can’t spend money we don’t have, and the governor is committed to protecting taxpayers by balancing the budget. This is a values-based budget that puts the state on a stable fiscal path.”

Nothing about improving education through removing state control, as Wisconsin’s governor suggested, or anything like that.  There is the interesting flag of “values” – for Arizona, does that mean a call for traditional moral values, a summons to frontier virtues, or fiscal rectitude, or something other?

This might not be a case of complete privatization, however, as many community colleges receive some funding from local (city or county) taxes.  I don’t know to what extend Maricopa and Pima do this.  If they do receive such support, this might be a case of localization, rather than privatization per se.  And if local funding exists, the colleges could lobby for an increase to make up for the state shortfall.  I don’t know the politics enough to determine if this is possible or doomed.

Stepping back a little, what does this new Arizona budgetary move mean for American higher education?  Is this the first sign of a national trend, or just an outlier?

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