Morici: Fixing higher education and student debt

Peter Morici

Ten years after the financial crisis banks may be safer and the economy recovered, but intolerable burdens have been hoisted on America’s youth. Too many are handicapped by horrendous student debt, forcing them to delay marriage, children and first homes.

Faced with massive unemployment and the failure of his $831 billion stimulus package, President Obama encouraged more young people to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to attend college and graduate school. That took millions off the jobless rolls.

Mr. Obama propagated false reasoning: College graduates earn on average much more than high school graduates, hence sending most young people to college would assure most above average incomes.

That is sadly reminiscent of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where every child is above average.

To send most everyone to college, nearly everyone has to receive a college preparatory high school education.

Pressures to “pass them through” resulted in what even The New York Times admits are counterfeit high school diplomas. Fewer than 40 percent of secondary school graduates have the math and reading skills to do college-level work.

State governments pressured by rocketing Medicaid costs, the needs of K-12 education and flagging tax revenues, slashed support and jacked up tuition at public colleges. That enabled private colleges to do the same and compelled bigger student loans.

Facing tight budgets, limited pools of qualified applicants and Obama administration pressures to increase diversity, colleges and universities lowered admission requirements and gutted curriculums.

Mr. Obama’s legacy: About 70 percent of high school graduates now enroll in two- or four-year programs, student loan balances now top $1.5 trillion and most young people do not get the quality education they are promised.

No one should be surprised to meet younger adults – even among graduates of prestigious law schools, business schools and members of Congress – who espouse slogans as facts, or believe that the mere accusation of crime based on vague recollections and without the testament of witnesses is a writ of guilt.

That is what they learn in English class, women’s studies and sadly even at business schools and economics departments instead of how to gather credible facts, reach logically supportable conclusions and express those with clarity.

Colleges and universities cannot possibly educate students so burdened by pedagogical promiscuity and poor secondary-school preparation. Many enrolled drop out – especially those admitted through affirmative action or who enjoy special privileges as the children of rich parents. And too many simply receive fraudulent degrees.

These problems are particularly acute but by no means isolated among for-profit colleges. Often, those use exaggerated claims and easy access to student loans to sell the least sophisticated young people – those from economically and ethnically disadvantaged families – expensive and useless programs.

Standardized tests indicate four years of college often adds little to students’ analytical abilities and four in 10 college graduates lack the critical thinking skills necessary for entry-level professional work.

Consequently, more than 40 percent of young college graduates remain stuck in jobs that do not require a college education, and more than 3.6 million graduates live below the poverty line.

President Trump gets good and bad grades. His emphasis on apprenticeships that pay students, leave them without debt and after a year or two provide most with opportunities that pay better than the $50,000 the average new college graduate earns are admirable. However, his efforts to roll back Mr. Obama’s crackdown on for-profit colleges are not flattering.

To clean up the mess, it’s time for some good old-fashioned debt forgiveness. If Mr. Obama could bail out the banks, Mr. Trump could do the same for students sold on a lousy idea by their government. And he can finance some of that by going after the resources of for-profit colleges and mainstream universities.

A few bankruptcy auctions for the properties of second-rate schools and tort judgments against endowments of revered institutions that have happily exploited all this fraud – and indoctrinated students instead of educating them – would have the same reformative consequences as suing negligent corporations that hawk shoddy products.

Threaten the job security of cossetted, intolerant professors and see how quickly they relearn how to teach Chaucer, calculus and credible critical thinking skills.

Academics are always lecturing us to hold greedy businesses to account. Now the time has come to hold them to account.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. © 2018, The Washington Times, LLC.