A few thoughts on free public college options for all

There are many ways that the very wealthy already benefit financially from U.S. government policies (which is frustrating to me), but opposing zero-tuition public colleges because rich kids might get to go to public colleges for free seems like a strange position.

What are the odds that Hillary Clinton’s implied scenario of a flood of ultra-wealthy students will suddenly decide to enroll in public universities because the tuition is free now? Won’t they overwhelmingly just continue to go to elite schools where tuition is still charged? (Just like how they tend to go to private school for K-12 even though it is freely available to them in public form.)

And, as a side note about her overall plan (means-testing plus work-study), why should the poorest kids who’ve probably had to struggle the hardest to get to college also then have to work on the side to qualify for tuition coverage under her plan? Why don’t we just make it so everyone, regardless of means, has the right to go to college for free without working in addition to concentrating on their studies — and let the chips fall where they may? Why do we have to make these policies so complicated for no apparent reason? Just offer them to everyone and whoever takes it, takes it. It’s not that expensive.

Perkins Loan program set to expire at end of month, after 57 year run

The country’s longest-running student loan program, the Perkins Loan, is set to expire on September 30th and it remains unclear whether the program will be extended. For the past 57 years, the Perkins Loan has aimed to serve students with the highest needs and is unique because of the flexibility in the loan.

The Perkins program distributes $1.2 billion in loans each year, which represents only 1% of college loans disbursed in 2014.

Colleges and Universities receive an allotment of Perkins Loan money and are responsible for determining who has the most need in their student body and passing on the loan to them. Many believe this is a cost-effective model because universities use the money that they are paid back through the loan program to distribute more loans.

The loan also provides students with a 9-month grace period after graduation before they begin repayments and allows the loans to be cancelled if the student goes on to work in certain public fields, such as law enforcement or social work.

At least 95 members of Congress, university and college leaders, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) are prepared to defend Perkins Loans. However, key GOP lawmakers appear to be prepared to let the program expire.

Perkins Loans are not without their pitfalls. Some wish to simplify the federal aid programs to students to make it easier for students to navigate the system. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) would like to see a simplified system with three programs for aid: one federal loan program, one work study program, and one grant program — which would leave no room for the Perkins program.

Additionally, the funding formula used to determine how many Perkins loans a college can distribute is outdated. Ben Miller, Senior Director for Post Secondary Education at the Center for American Progress points out:

“The funding formula guarantees colleges receive the same amount of money that they did in 1999. Because the 1999 amount was supposed to provide colleges what they received in past years, that amount is similar to what schools received in 1979. The 1970s funding formula looked at school enrollment to determine how those dollars would be allocated. However, during that time period, enrollment in colleges and universities in the Northeast was much more concentrated than it is now, so students attending universities in other parts of the country are losing out, Miller said.”

While there are legitimate reasons to simplify student aid programs and ways to improve the existing Perkins program, there is little chance of that happening before the end of the month and if the program is allowed to expire, it is America’s neediest students who will pay the price.

According to NASFAA President, Justin Draeger:

“If Congress doesn’t vote to extend the program before its Oct. 1 expiration date, incoming low-income students are expected to face a gap of $2,000, on average, in their financial aid packages.”


Pell Grants made available for prisoners

Of the 700,000 prisoners who are released each year, more than 40% will be pack in prison within three years. Each prisoner costs the taxpayer $35,00-40,000 each year. You don’t need to know very much math to know that this isn’t a good deal for the United States — not to mention the loss of human potential of those stuck on a path of cyclical prison visits.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has decided to do something about it. Duncan’s plan encourages colleges and universities to offer classes in prisons by providing prisoners Pell Grants of $6,000 to pay for the classes. The plan is only a 5-year experiment to gather data on the outcomes of prisoners who participate in the program.

A Rand Corp. study estimates that every dollar spent on prison education saves the US taxpayer $5 and notes that when a prisoner takes a college course, they are 16% less likely to return to prison.

Of course, not everyone agrees with providing Pell Grants to prisoners, which is why 20 years ago, Congress voted to cut off access to the grants to state and federal prisoners.

So, for now, Secretary Duncan’s efforts remain a small-scale experiment, but he remains hopeful:

“We think this is a small, small investment that will pay extraordinary dividends. Not just financially. But in terms of making our streets and our community safer.”


Free college AND a better Wall St? Sanders sees a way.

Sanders-021507-18335- 0004Senator Bernie Sanders has unveiled his latest policy proposal as part of his Democratic presidential campaign: Free public college, funded via a new financial transactions tax to discourage damaging Wall Street speculation. It’s a step up from his earlier pre-campaign proposal of cutting tuition only in half. Here’s a summary of his new plan:

Annual tuition costs at those institutions add up to roughly $70 billion, according to a fact sheet from Sanders’ office. The proposed legislation would require the federal government to compensate for two-thirds of that sum, with the states making up the additional third.
The federal funding for Sanders’s proposal would come from a tax on financial transactions. Stock trades, bonds, and derivative trading would be taxed at rates of 0.5 percent, 0.1 percent, and 0.005 percent, respectively. Supporters of the financial transaction tax […] say it is not only a progressive way to raise revenue but would also discourage dangerous levels of Wall Street speculation.

A recent report from economist Joseph Stiglitz and the Roosevelt Institute, intended to provide a comprehensive framework for reworking American economic policy, endorsed a financial transaction tax as a way to “penalize short-term traders and incentivize longer holding periods, thus reducing instability and encouraging longer-term productive investment.”

Unfortunately perhaps the biggest pitfall of this plan — though it is (abstractly) an excellent starting point for a negotiation in Congress — is its dependence on state governments for a third of the funding. Low-cost public colleges and university educations are already being demolished in the name of dogmatic tax cuts. This plan depends on somehow convincing dozens of states not to slash funding / hike tuition and fees for their public colleges. But it’s a lot better than nothing.

Related reading on…

How much would it cost to make public colleges free?
Corporate borrowing diverted to shareholders, not investment
Putting Finance Back in the Box
Stock market speculation
Billionaire stock speculation

Beyond SAE: The bigger picture on college racism

“There will never be a n—-r at SAE!” That’s the chant recorded over the weekend that got the University of Oklahoma chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity shut down. In the video that went viral on social media, you see a group of White students on a bus chanting the song to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” They look excited and well practiced at an obviously racist song, as if it had been passed from member to member across generations. They look as if this behavior is normal for them.

Almost immediately after the video went viral, there was a response from both the University and the fraternity’s national president. The closure of the Oklahoma chapter of the frat was quick and everyone from school officials, fraternity officials and even the schools football team severed all ties possible with them. All claiming that the behavior of the members was unacceptable, and that this kind of racism wasn’t something they stood for. The National SAE Organization has permanently revoked the membership of the students involved in the video. The University has reported to have expelled a few of the members, and the SAE house has been shut down, so other members have to find their own housing without the help of the University.

But let’s not act like this is new. This isn’t a lone, isolated, or one-time occurrence on one college campus. This isn’t even the only time Sigma Alpha Epsilon specifically has had issues with racism. Back in 2011, SAE members at Cornell University in New York during a hazing killed George Desdunes, a 19 year old Haitian pledge, by forcing him to drink until he passed out and then neglecting to take him to the hospital. When charges were brought up against the students involved, the students were only charged with misdemeanor hazing.

While the punishment that the students at University of Oklahoma received was justified, it’s clear that this event was far from isolated. Because of social media and sites like Twitter, Vine and YouTube, these random acts of racism are being proven to be less random and more of a product of the institutionalized racism that is still a big problem in the US.

On Tuesday, March 10th a group called NJShutItDown initiated a Twitter conversation about the topic using the hashtag #NotJustSAE that focused on the experiences many People of Color had with Fraternities and Sororities at primarily White Institutions. In the hashtag, people shared personal experiences, as well as news stories about racist themed parties centered around holidays like Cinco de Mayo and Martin Luther King Day. At many of these parties, white students are dressed up in blackface and wearing dreadlock and afro wigs. In all of them, the students seem at ease with their racism.

The ease with which these students can don blackface, chant about lynchings and even murder other students isn’t isolated. It’s a problem, and it’s been a problem for a long time now. To these students, this behavior is thought of as just “college fun,” and before social media it was treated as kids being kids in isolated, disconnected incidents. It’s unacceptable, and while it’s good that University of Oklahoma took action immediately, more schools should follow their lead.

Bernie Sanders proposes cutting public college tuition in half

Sanders-021507-18335- 0004Public college tuition could be cut in half by diverting defense spending, increasing state investment, and making other reforms to student lending, according to a proposal by Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Bernie Sanders (I-VT) presented at the University of Iowa this week as he explores a presidential run.

The budget proposed by President Barack Obama includes $38 billion more for the Pentagon’s base budget. Republicans in Congress want even more in a military budget that is higher than the next nine countries combined. Sanders instead would put half the amount requested for extra military funding, about $18 billion, into higher education grants to states. With state matching funds, tuitions at public universities and colleges could be cut in half, according to Sanders, the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee.

Sanders also called for a major overhaul of federal student loans. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the Department of Education will reap $127 billion in profits over 10 years from rising interest charges for college students and their families.

“We must end the practice of the government making billions in profits from student loans taken out by low and moderate income families. That is extremely regressive public policy,” Sanders said. “It also makes no sense that students and their parents are forced to pay interest rates for higher education loans that are much higher than they pay for car loans or housing mortgages.”

Senator Sanders’ prepared remarks and citations are available here.

It’s an ambitious proposal by the feckless standards to which we have grown accustomed, but it’s still far short of proposals for zero-tuition public colleges. My radio co-host Nate and I discussed the latter concept at length on a recent episode of our show. Listen below:

Part 1 – Free College – AFD 115

January 28, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 115


Topics: Big Ideas – Zero-Tuition Public College; Greek elections. People: Bill, Nate. Produced: January 26th, 2015.

Discussion Points:

– Big Ideas for Reforming American Governance: Should the federal government offer a zero-tuition 4-year public college system? Is this feasible?
– How will Syriza’s win in the Greek elections affect Greece and the EU?

Episode 115 (46 min)
AFD 115

Related links
Segment 1

ThinkProgress: How Obama Could Make College Free For Everyone Without Spending A Dime
EdWeek: Some Higher Education Advocates Wary of President’s Free Community College Plan
The Atlantic: Is There a Better Way to Deal With Student-Loan Debt?

Segment 2

AFD: The Questions Posed by World’s 2015 Elections
AFD: Syriza-Independent Greeks coalition takes office


RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.