Tuesday, May 02, 2006

College Loans and the General Good

Michael Tomasky has written a wonderful article that has been blogged about many times, many places wherein he argues that the unifying Democratic theme needs to be "promoting the common good." Will Rogers' famous line that "I don't belong to any organized political party, I'm a Democrat" has never been more true and Tomasky argues that while the party has numerous factions all promoting their own agendas, the common ground between them is the promotion of the common good and that it ought to be the hook upon which we hang our rhetorical hat. When people ask what do Democrats stand for, the answer ought to be making this a better world for everyone, raising all boats, or some other equally cheesy metaphor about the common good that differentiates the party from views based on greed, selfishness, xenophobia, biogotry and other vicious positions that are based on "me first" thinking.

I thought of Tomasky's piece yesterday while reading this piece from CNN that compares the burden of college loans on today's students with life sentences. We saddle people with such unbelievable debt loads coming out of school -- an average of $15,622 for public universities and a staggering $22,581 for private institutions -- that they have little choice but to postpone life plans or change their trajectories altogether in order to make payments.

I see it first hand every day. Not only in my students, but in my colleagues. Full grown adults with very good jobs whose life choices about issues as important as when and if to have children are affected by their college loans. If we really believed in family values, this would be on every politician's radar screen. On the back end, people are delaying or choosing not to have families because of the debts; on the front end, parents live in constant fear of it. Families with children today have two worries that are always hanging over their heads. First, is to make sure that they don't lose their health insurance. But not far behind is "how in the world are we going to be able to afford to send the kids to college?"

If we want to look at it as a political problem, then we ought to take Tomasky's approach and think of this in terms of the common good. There are no better issues politically to champion than health care and college loans. They ought to be on every single pair of Democratic lips every time they are in the same county as a voter or a camera. They are about the health and well being of our children. Why aren't the Democrats pounding the fact that the Republican Congress just passed the largest cut ever to federal student loan programs -- $12.7 BILLION gone from college students -- at the same time interest rates are going up. Yeah, now that we've knocked them down, let's give the two-thirds of students who rely on loans a nice kick in the groin.

But it isn't just a politcal question, it is a moral issue. It is about whether we believe in social advancement. The statistics about the gap between those with and without a college degree are legion. Because of the wage differential, the only way to afford a family is to go to college, but because of the debt load, if you go to college you won't be able to afford a family. What are we thinking?

But again, this is not just about giving upward mobility and the financial means to be in control of life decisions for individuals, this is about us as a society. Education is not vo-tech training. Do NOT pull out that old chestnut, "Not everyone needs college," or "College isn't for everyone." Classist bullshit. I taught night school and community college and night school at a community college for years to people whose jobs did not require college level math or writing. Don't tell me that these people "don't need college." Yes, it is absolutely true that some people are better off waiting until they are older. Plato argued that we should not educate people until they are 40 because before that they are more interested in the life of the body than the mind -- and they ought to be. No doubt, this is true for some and everyone has his or her own life path to follow which may not lead right to college matriculation following high school. BUT, thinking deep thoughts, reading great books, learning about the workings of society and the world around us, becoming better more organized thinkers and writers enriches everyone. Grad school is not for everyone, but college which helps people become thoughtful, analytic, well-read people with critical and creative skills ought to be available to everyone.

And this is not merely a matter of personal enrichment. These makes people better for the marketplace, the townsquare, and the voting booth. Society as a whole, especially one that purports to be a democracy, benefits from a better educated population. We need to return to civil fucking discourse if we are going to have any hopes of getting decent policy decisions from our elected officials concerning the hard questions like global warming, economic justice and growth, education, and health care. It is a common good and common benefit demands common investment. Something strucuctural needs to be done. We need commitments to affordable health care and education for all. You should not have to sacrifice your first born, or opt to delay or not to have her in order to get a college education. If this does not become a central plank in the Democratic platform, you'd think they don't want to win elections. You want to stand for something Dems? Stand for families. Stand for affordable college.