Tag Archives: Jackson Toby

A Proposal to Let Bankruptcy Discharge Private Student Loans

A Wall Street Journal editorial today took a very negative view–rightly, in my opinion–of President Obama’s proposal to let student borrowers discharge private student loans through bankruptcy. By law, repayment of federally guaranteed loans cannot be avoided this way. But the Journal wrote: “If there’s not a great outcry over letting borrowers stiff private lenders, eventually you can expect the rollout of a similar policy for government loans.”

And here’s another point: Even students who take out federally-guaranteed student loans first often need private loans also when they reach the cap applied to Direct Loans and still need to borrow for college expenses.  By raising the possibility of discharging some of these loans through bankruptcy – unlikely though it is that Congress will go along – President Obama will drive up the interest-rate cost of private student loans.  Private lenders do not need additional risk of default through easier student bankruptcy. They would raise rates and thereby make college less affordable.  

Cheaper Student Loans–A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come

student-loan-debt.jpgWhen Victor Hugo claimed that all the world’s armies are powerless against an idea whose time has come, he probably had in mind good ideas. But the time can come for a bad idea also. Low-cost student loans, embraced by President Obama, Governor Romney, and Congressional leaders of both parties, is a bad idea. Students and prospective students love the prospect of paying less for college, and so do their parents. Moreover, some economists say that investing more in educating youngsters from low-income families will increase the ability of American workers to compete in the global marketplace.

But students don’t need cheaper loans. What they need are loans that give them an incentive to get good enough college educations to qualify for jobs – well-paying jobs that enable them to pay off their loans. The flaw in the federal guaranteed student-loan program – from its beginning in 1965 – has been its exclusive concern with whether or not students came from families with low-incomes, not whether loans would help launch careers.

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The Loan Defaults Are Coming–Here’s What to Do

coins for college.jpgNo modern-day Paul Revere is taking a midnight ride to warn about this, but the defaults are coming. Many are already here. They are coming from student loans given to the wrong students for the wrong reasons. The portfolio of federally guaranteed student loans passed the one trillion dollar mark in early 2012, and it continues to grow. The portfolio consists not only of loans for students from low-income families currently in college but also of hundreds of millions of dollars of education loans taken out by students who graduated from college or quit before graduating that have not been fully repaid. Such loans were extended either by the Department of Education directly or by financial institutions like Sallie Mae and banks and guaranteed by the United States Treasury. The total size of this loan portfolio exceeds the total credit card debt of the American population.

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Hateless Hate Crime at Rutgers?

dharun_ravi.jpgThe criminal trial of Dharun Ravi commanded national attention and focus on our controversial hate-crime laws. The issue was whether Ravi spied on his Rutgers roommate, Tyler Clementi, and whether he spied because of prejudice against homosexuals generally and against his gay roommate in particular. Ravi’s conviction last Friday on the most serious charge against him, “bias intimidation,” carries with it a possible sentence of ten years in prison. It was not for homicide. The jury certainly knew that Tyler had jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, a few days after 18-year-old Ravi used a web cam to observe his roommate’s tryst with a 28-year-old man in September, 2010.

Legally, however, Tyler’s suicide was irrelevant to the case. The jury should have considered only whether or not Ravi was guilty of a hate-crime: “bias intimidation.” Like 45 states and the federal government that have hate-crime laws to increase the penalties for other crimes, New Jersey has an Ethnic Intimidation Act. Nevada, for example, adds 25 percent to a prison sentence for felonies judged to be hate-crimes, but New Jersey’s hate-crime law tops the list for extra punitiveness. One problem is that hate-crimes, like beauty, are in the eyes of beholders. Did Ravi’s spying constitute “bias intimidation’?

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Second Thoughts About Joe Paterno

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Some Penn State alumni, outraged over the Board of Trustees peremptory firing of Coach Joe Paterno, are organizing a campaign to elect three new trustees.  The objective of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship is, ultimately, to oust the current Board.  The Board fired Paterno, two University officials and the University President for not responding forcefully to accusations of child sexual abuse in the football-team shower room.  Many alumni, including hundreds who met with the new President at hotels in the Pittsburgh, New York City, and Philadelphia areas recently, were outraged that the Board had not verified the accusations before acting.

According to indignant alumni, the Penn State Board of Trustees confused two separate, unequal cases.  One case was possible perjury before a grand jury by Tim Curley, the Athletic Director, and Gary Schultz, the senior vice-president in charge of the Penn State Police.  The second case was the charge against Jerry Sandusky that he possibly sexually molested a young boy in the Penn State football-team shower room.

Curley and Schultz were suspected of lying to conceal discreditable behavior damaging to the reputation of the Penn State football program.  Guilty or innocent, they face enormous legal costs to mount a defense against the perjury charge.  If convicted, they will probably go to prison.  But the evidence for the indictment for perjury is weak.  It rests entirely on the grand jury testimony of assistant football coach Mike McQueary in the fall of 2011 about what he saw nine years earlier when he was in his early twenties.  McQueary remembered being shocked when he accidentally observed in the shower room of the Penn State football team what appeared to be a former coach sexually molesting a pre-adolescent boy.  Here is how the Washington Post described McQueary’s account of the 2002 incident when called as a witness in a District Court hearing last December 16:

In his testimony at the preliminary hearing for Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, McQueary said he believes he saw Sandusky sexually molesting a boy in the shower but was not 100 percent sure it was intercourse.

McQueary said he peeked into the shower several times and saw Sandusky with his hands wrapped around the waist of a boy he estimated to be 10 or 12 years old. He said both were naked, the boy was facing the wall, and that the last time he looked in, Sandusky and the boy had separated.

“I know they saw me,” McQueary said. “They looked directly in my eye, both of them.”

Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have both insisted publicly that, when McQueary told them in 2002 what had disturbed him, he did not mention anal rape, as some newspaper accounts reported.  McQueary had told his story first to Coach Paterno in 2002, and Coach Paterno’s recollection of their meeting characterized McQueary’s report similarly.  Here is what Joe Paterno said on November 6, 2011, about their 2002 meeting:

As my grand jury testimony stated, I was informed in 2002 by an assistant coach that he had witnessed an incident in the shower of our locker room facility. It was obvious that the witness was distraught over what he saw, but he at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the Grand Jury report. Regardless, it was clear that the witness saw something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky. As Coach Sandusky was retired from our coaching staff at that time, I referred the matter to university administrators.

The grand jury accepted McQueary’s graphic report as a faithful account of what happened and what he told about it to Paterno, to the Athletic Director, Tim Curley, and to Gary Schultz, the senior vice-president.  Curley, Schultz, and Paterno remembered the conversations with McCreary differently.  According to all three of them, McQueary said nothing about anal rape, only that Sandusky and a preadolescent boy were showering together in the shower room and “horsing around.”  Because the grand jury believed that McQueary was telling the truth and that Curley and Schultz were lying to minimize disreputable behavior at the University, it indicted Curley and Schultz for perjury.  Whether or not they committed perjury has nothing to do with whatever Sandusky did or did not do to a boy in the shower room.  (The grand jury did not explain why it did not also indict Coach Joe Paterno for perjury; his report of his conversation with McQueary was identical to the accounts given by Curley and Schultz.)

Questionable Indictments

The Board of Trustees apparently considered the indictments of Sandusky, Curley, and Schultz evidence of guilt.  On the evening of November 9, the Vice-Chairman of the Board, John Surma Jr., made a vague public statement explaining why the Board fired Joe Paterno, the Athletic Director to whom he reported, the vice-president to whom the Penn State Police force reported, and the president of Penn State University itself.

We thought that because of the difficulties that engulfed our university, and they are grave, that it is necessary to make a change in the leadership to set a course for a new direction.

A jury would have to believe – despite an absence of corroborating evidence — that Coach Paterno and the two administrators lied independently to a grand jury about what McQueary told them in 2002 or conspired with one another to lie in order to protect the University from bad publicity.  The jury would also have to believe that reputable University officials chose to cover up the rape of a ten-year-old boy.  More plausible is faulty memories rather than lies.  McQueary stumbled on what seemed to him improper and upsetting sexual behavior between a coach and a pre-adolescent boy, but he did not remember exactly what went on nine years earlier.  Surely the defense attorneys will raise questions about how McQueary reacted to what he saw and what he heard during the 2002 incident.  He did not claim to have heard the boy cry out, “Help!” although he said that the boy saw him. He did not claim to have himself shouted, “What’s going on here?”  All he did was peek into the shower room three times and then go home and telephone his father.  Paterno, Curley, and Schultz all deny receiving explicit information about an anal rape.

The perjury indictments have little to do with football at Penn State, only with the accusation that two reputable University administrators lied to a grand jury (for which they are potentially liable to be given long prison terms).  The collateral damage of the perjury indictments – inflicted by the Board of Trustees — was the firing of Coach Paterno and of Penn State President Graham Spanier. Perhaps a prudent Board of Trustees should not have rushed to administer punishments.  As one of my former students, now a senior executive of an organization in the professional sports field commented about the uproar at Penn State in an email:

Where is the adult in the room who says, “Hold on. We have a legal process and we need to follow it in the most routine cases and even for the most hideous ones. This case is no exception.”

The American system of criminal justice does not usually imitate the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who enunciated the principle of “Sentence first, verdict afterwards.”  Maybe current members of the Board never read that criminological classic or understood that Lewis Carroll was ridiculing arbitrary punishments.  Maybe Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship should distribute copies of Alice in Wonderland to all members of the Board of Trustees as well as to the new members they succeed in electing.

Paterno: Sentence First, Verdict Afterwards

Why did the Board of Trustees of Penn State University put a humiliating end to the unblemished career of 84-year-old football coach, Joe Paterno?  In announcing the Board’s decision to fire him on the evening of November 9, the Vice-Chairman of the Board, John Surma Jr., spoke vaguely about the need to “make a change in the leadership.”

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The Revenge of the Unemployed Graduates

arab-revolution.jpgHere’s the major question about the famous suicide by fire of the young Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi: why did it trigger so much upheaval in so many Arab lands?

Widespread poverty, political corruption, and ruthless oppression are an old story in Arab countries.  Why should this suicide have produced so many furious young adults risking their lives to defy security police and soldiers? There’s a plausible explanation that much of the media have missed: the frustrated expectations of young high school and university graduates.  A great many young graduates had struggled to earn degrees, occasionally in demanding curricula like engineering or information technology. Government and university officials had routinely made speeches assuring them that education would result in well-paid jobs in private companies or in the bloated bureaucracies of their governments.  Instead, many found themselves unemployed or forced to take menial jobs.  Universities had turned into unemployment factories.  To get the few good jobs, outstanding academic qualifications were of some help but not enough.  Graduates had to be lucky and also pay bribes or have family connections.

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An Unexpected Harmony on the Humanities, But…

Professor of English Mark Bauerlein of Emory University reports on a harmonious conference on the humanities.  Harmony is all very well, but perhaps the conference might have done better to raise embarrassing questions that might have made it more contentious – such as that English Departments have shifted away from offering traditional literature and instead attempt to attract students with science fiction courses and other trendy subjects. 

As I reported in my book, The Lowering of Higher Education in America, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni issued a report in 2007 entitled The Vanishing Shakespeare

that took aim at this trend. The report reported a survey of the requirements for English majors at 70 of America’s leading colleges and universities. ” . . . we defined a college or university as having a Shakespeare requirement when English majors were obliged either to take a course in

Shakespeare or to take two out of three single-author courses in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.”By this criterion, English majors at only fifteen of seventy major institutions of higher education did have to take a course in Shakespeare, including Harvard University, Catholic University, California Institute of Technology, Middlebury College, Stanford University, and Wellesley College. However, 55 of the 70 did not require its English majors to take a course in Shakespeare, including Princeton, Yale, Brown, Swarthmore College, Williams College, Columbia, Colby College, Carleton College, Bowdoin College, Bryn Mawr College, and Johns Hopkins. 

True, English Departments often require students to take courses in expository writing, usually taught by graduate students.  But perhaps because many undergraduates do not read traditional literature – many hardly read at all, as Professor Bauerlein has complained in another place – they do not write well and find it difficult to get jobs after graduation.  Is it any wonder that parents suspect that a degree in English is not cost-effective?

The One Trillion Dollar Misunderstanding

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At the beginning of 2011 the portfolio of the federal government for education loans was nearly one trillion dollars.  The portfolio consisted of loans for students currently in college extended either directly by the Department of Education or loans from financial institutions like Sallie Mae and banks with repayment guaranteed by the United States Treasury as well the education loans of students who had graduated from college or had quit before graduating but had not been fully repaid.  Its size exceeded the credit card debt of the American population in early 2011 and it continues to grow; whatever part remains unpaid contributes to the national debt.

An optimist views the large portfolio of student debt as “no problem.”  After they graduate, nearly all students will pay off their debts gradually, although they may have to live frugally in order to do so.  A pessimist views student debt as likely to be a permanent drain on taxpayers, as upwards of 40 per cent of borrowers will ultimately default on their loans or die before paying them off.  Meanwhile the portfolio of federal student loans will continue to grow. 

This pessimistic prognosis for student loans rests on the assumption that loans were often given to the wrong students for the wrong reasons and still are.   Pessimists believe that the existing student loan program has become unsustainable, as the subprime mortgage lending program was unsustainable, because of imprudent risks.  The risks were imprudent because of two main misunderstandings:

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Let’s Change the Student Loan Program

fees-demo-london.jpgThousands of British university students walked out of classes on November 24 to protest the cuts in governmental subsidies. Demonstrations in a dozen cities were mostly peaceful, but several dozen students occupied part of Oxford’s Bodleian Library and protesters in London set fires outside government offices in Whitehall where two police officers were injured in skirmishes. Student protests earlier in November had been larger and more violent; in London alone 52,000 university students took to the streets to demonstrate against the planned cuts in educational subsidies. On December 9 university students in London again staged violent demonstrations against the aid cuts; police and student demonstrators were injured; and demonstrators also picketed the Rolls-Royce containing Prince Charles and his wife with insulting signs.

Student indignation about cuts in educational subsidies is not new. Many university students in the United Kingdom and other affluent European countries believe they are entitled to higher education as one of the benefits of a welfare state, not as a service that they have to buy from educational providers. Here is how one student protest leader put it during 2004 protests against tuition increases: “The drive to privatize public services, including universities, is very much a European issue,” said Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, a British group that has organized dozens of demonstrations against tuition fees, including a national march on London in October 2003, the biggest student demonstration in Britain in decades. “There’s going to be a shutdown of all higher education,” said Ms. Telford, a recent graduate of the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. “Obviously there is a university funding crisis, but we think the government should go back to the drawing board and figure out how to get the money through more progressive taxation. Students shouldn’t contribute in any way.” Before the current economic crisis this view received strong political support. Tony Blair, Labor Prime Minister, barely survived a vote of confidence in the House of Commons in January 2004, 316 to 311, because his government proposed tripling the tuition charges to students attending British colleges and universities, beginning in 2006, two years after the vote. These protests were not to prevent students from low-income families from losing access to universities; the increases in fees would affect only students from families that could afford to pay them; the protests were intended to uphold the principle of governmental responsibility for higher education. The current protest is over the identical issue: tripling tuition for some students.

The prominence of private colleges and universities in the United States may help explain why American students complain more civilly about educational cuts. American students (and their parents) expect to pay a considerable portion of the charges for tuition and room and board. British students don’t. American students customarily work at low-level summer jobs or even at part-time jobs during the academic year to contribute to these costs. However, until the 1960’s such charges were low because the operating costs of colleges and universities were low; professors received small salaries and administrations had not become highly bureaucratized and expensive — and income from endowments subsidized substantially the per capita cost of educating students. When the costs of higher education escalated in the 1980s and 1990s and American students were asked to pay higher tuition, not only in private colleges and universities but even in public colleges and universities where tuition had been free or nominal, American students were unhappy, but accepted the additional burdens of these cost increases. At the same time British, French, and Italian university students staged passionate, violent protests against reduced governmental subsidies for higher education; having a welfare state seemed to them a guarantee that education was a government responsibility.

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Is It Fair to Call It a Scam?

Professor Richard Vedder is certainly one of the most knowledgeable — and wisest – commentators on American higher education. So his cautionary remarks should be taken very seriously.
I have one reservation about calling the push for more colleges a “scam.” It is true that some youngsters knew all through college that they wanted to be physicians or lawyers and consequently their first jobs reflected their career objectives. However, many college graduates graduate without a clear notion of what they want to do occupationally or even personally. Some work for a couple of years for Teach for America without planning a lifetime career as teachers. Some take jobs as waiters or waitresses while their career aspirations lie in acting or art, careers notoriously difficult to enter. Therefore I hesitate to interpret several years of low-paid jobs that college graduates as a disconnect between what is learned at college and what college graduates do occupationally in their first jobs. Getting back to teaching, it might be excellent for American education have primary- and secondary-school students taught for four or five years by college graduates who lack teaching experience but have the attractive enthusiasm of youth even though they and their colleagues know that they do not plan to be career teachers. If we keep in mind the difference between “jobs” and “careers,” the fact that college graduates take low-level jobs in the years immediately following graduation is not necessarily a failure of college education or of the graduates themselves.

Why Remediation in College Doesn’t Work

In his recent speech at the University of Texas in Austin, President Obama expressed deep unhappiness that the United States is no longer the country with the highest percentage of college graduates in the 25 to 34 age bracket. By 2020 he wants us to regain the top position we enjoyed ten years ago before South Korea, Canada, and Russia forged ahead of us. According to the latest report of the College Board, the United States is now 12th among the 36 developed nations whose college graduation rates the Board tabulated. Should the President have been unhappy? Only if he believes that our lower rate of college graduation reflects a lower rate of genuine educational achievement. If President Obama simply wants bragging rights, the United States can become first very quickly. All that is needed is to reduce graduation requirements or to increase grading inflation in college courses. (Or to give a college degree to every baby born in the United States along with a birth certificate.) The issue is what students with a college degree should know, not whether they have a piece of paper in exchange for all the time and money spent on a campus. It is troubling that only 40 per cent of Americans 25 to 44 have college degrees. It is even more troubling that of the 70 per cent of our high school graduates who enroll in college, only 57 per cent graduate within six years. One rather remote possibility – given studies that show how little American college graduates know – is that American colleges are maintaining high standards and that these high standards necessarily produce higher dropout rates and lower rates of college completion than President Obama would like. Unfortunately high standards do not appear to be the explanation.
Here is how one reader of the Wall Street Journal reacted to an article reporting the President’s call for more American college graduates:

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On Pigeons, Pells and Student Incentives

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Jackson Toby, professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers and author of the new book, The Lowering of Higher Education in America, delivered this speech yesterday (April 7) at a luncheon in New York City. The luncheon, at the University Club, was sponsored by the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University and Minding the Campus.

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“Is College Graduation Enough for a Good Job or Do College Graduates Have to Know Something?” That’s the title of one chapter of my new book. And in an effort to illustrate the problems of evaluating what contemporary college graduates know, I began the chapter with the lyrics of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Cole Porter’s 1948 hit musical Kiss Me Kate.
Broadway audiences didn’t necessarily have to know that the musical was based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, but it helped. Porter graduated from Yale nearly a century ago. In that era a Yale graduate—or a graduate of any American university—had to have had some exposure to the plays of Shakespeare, because it was an era during which a college education referred to a corpus of common intellectual experiences. Colleges usually had a core curriculum that all graduates had to take, whatever their major or their interests. “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” contained references to Homer, English poets, the Greek playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides, a mention of the “Bard of Stratford-on-Avon,” the town where Shakespeare was born, and puns involving titles to several of Shakespeare’s plays: Othello, Anthony and Cleopatra, Much Ado about Nothing, Coriolanus, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Members of the audience who did not know at least the titles couldn’t understand fully Porter’s witticisms. Consider a few lines from the lyrics:

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Goofing Off At College

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This is an excerpt from Professor Toby’s new book,
The Lowering of Higher Education in America (Praeger).
The balance between the pursuit of education and the pursuit of fun varies from college to college. Students in selective colleges and universities are less likely to goof off than in unselective institutions for at least two reasons. First, the selective colleges admit high-achieving high school graduates, the bulk of whom have the ability to meet high standards of academic performance. Second, a large proportion of their students are not content merely to graduate; they intend to pursue graduate work in academic disciplines or in professional schools.
When students in an undergraduate course are not motivated to do their reading assignments, whether it is a selective college or not, their professor can do little about it. Theoretically he could flunk half the class. In practice, however, the professor would fail only a few of them. (Failing half of the students in a class would be a public-relations disaster for the professor.) Thus, even in selective colleges, standards depend on what students are willing to learn as well as on what professors believe they ought to learn. The students in a class and the professor set the standards of academic performance by an implicit process of collective negotiation.
In the unselective colleges there is an additional complication: some students are so badly underprepared for college-level work that they cannot perform well even if they were motivated to do so. Here the negotiation process is affected by professorial resignation to the limitations of their clientele. Furthermore, some professors have ideological objections to failing students who have performed very poorly. Some believe that positive and negative sanctions (grades) do not work.

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