One of the right’s most perplexing positions

By: - September 18, 2014 5:55 am


Conservatives advocate to keep community college unaffordable

There are a lot of troubling policies that hold sway in the North Carolina education world these days. From the private school vouchers and Rube Goldberg teacher pay plan implemented this summer to the ongoing assault on liberal arts in our universities, conservatives continue to push for changes that are premised on a hard right ideological agenda.

And then there are the policies that seem to be premised upon mostly, well, plain old stubbornness and meanness.

Take, for example, the policy enacted a few years back (and still propped up by a drumbeat from the right-wing think tanks) to make and keep federal student loans off-limits to most community college students.

Yes, you heard that right: the right-wing advocacy groups and many of the state’s community college bosses do not want the students who attend these schools to have access to low-cost, federally-backed student loans.

As was noted in this space back in 2011 when state lawmakers moved to reverse a previous bipartisan decision to require all of the state’s 58 campuses to participate in federal loan programs, the stated reasoning isn’t very compelling:

According to proponents of repeal, there are two main reasons: 1) many local colleges still don’t want to deal with such loans because of fears that large numbers of students will default (there can be sanctions on schools whose default rate exceed prescribed limits) and 2) there have been incidents in which students have made poor choices in accessing loans. One local campus representative from one of the state’s most conservative counties – Alamance – told lawmakers a story of a student who had taken out a loan and used some of the resources in ways that evidenced questionable judgment and priorities.

That’s pretty much it: ‘It’s a hassle to manage and, frankly, there are some people out there we just think don’t need a loan.’”

A recent missive from the Pope Center for Higher Education and the Locke Foundation recycled and regurgitated these same uninspired arguments:

Colleges are choosing to drop federal loans because the U.S. Department of Education is tightening the screws on colleges that produce too many students who default on their loans after finishing or dropping their studies. Schools that have so-called ‘cohort default rates’ of 30 percent or higher for three consecutive years not only lose the privilege of offering federal loans, but also lose access to Pell grants.

Experts sees things differently

As you may have guessed, there is a compelling alternative argument regarding federal student loans and the importance of making them accessible to community college students. Three years ago, the assiduously middle-of-the-road North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research took the unusual step of submitting powerful written testimony in favor of expanded loan access to a legislative committee studying the issue. The testimony from the Center’s Director Ran Coble decried North Carolina’s widespread lack of participation in federal loans (North Carolina has one of the lowest rates in the nation) and thoroughly debunked the supposed concerns about high numbers of borrower defaults.

One of the major reasons community colleges told us they didn’t participate in the loan program is fear of being sanctioned by the federal government for having a high default rate. The sanctions are real, but the fears are unfounded. To be sanctioned under federal law, a school has to have a default rate of 25 percent for three consecutive years, or 40 percent in any one year.” (Emphasis is Coble’s).

Coble then pointed out that no participating college in North Carolina (or the nation as a whole) has come close to such rates.

Only five of the 5,672 participating schools in the country were at risk for sanctions in 2011 based on defaults in prior years….The bottom line is that no educational institution in the country that offers federal student loans has actually been sanctioned in the last 7 years.”

Similar conclusions were drawn in a recent (July 2014) in-depth report by experts at the national nonprofit advocacy group known as The Institute for College Access and Success or “TICAS.” Indeed, it was the TICAS report (“At what cost: How community colleges that do not offer federal loans put students at risk”) to which the Pope Center was attempting to respond with its recent essay. The authors (listen to them by clicking here) found lack of access to federal loans to be a huge and damaging problem:

Experts all agree that, for those who need to borrow to pay for college, federal student loans are the safest and most affordable option. Unfortunately, some colleges choose not to participate in the federal student loan program, preventing their students from taking advantage of them.

Without access to affordable student loans, students who cannot afford school after available grants and scholarships are left between a rock and a hard place. They might borrow through other channels, such as private education loans or credit cards, which are more expensive, riskier, and lack the repayment options and protections of federal student loans. Alternatively, they might work longer hours to pay the bills or cut back on the number of classes they take each term – choices that research has consistently found to reduce students’ chances of completing a degree or certificate”.

The report actually goes on (see page 6) to hold up North Carolina’s decision to back away from encouraging wider participation, which was finally approved in 2012, for special criticism. In responding to the excuse of one community college president that future defaults might cause the school problems, the report observes that his statement “calls into question whether the goal is truly to keep students from borrowing too much, or rather to insulate the college from responsibility if they do.”

Trying to understand the obstructionism

Ultimately, making real sense of the stubborn opposition of those who would block access to low cost federal loans is not an easy task. Especially given the fact that so many students who are denied access ultimately turn to much more expensive and even predatory options like high-interest rate credit cards, it’s simply difficult to fathom that opponents could be so callous.

For some like the school president cited above, it is undoubtedly – at least in some measure – a matter of myopic self-absorption. “Better to let young people be consigned to high-interest private loans or simply do without higher education than risk the school’s precious resources,” goes the thinking. (For a dramatically different and more progressive perspective, see the report’s description of the approach of Guilford Technical Community College.)

For others on the ideological right who consider it an article of faith that too many “unworthy” Americans attend college, one can also perceive the cruel, paternalistic “logic.” Ignoring the data which shows the folly of such “tough-daddy” directives, the implicit message is plain and clear: “Sacrifice and do without like past generations. Government loans and low-cost higher education are a socialist handout.”

And for some, it’s almost certainly just a matter of keeping the riffraff out of their schools. As we pointed out three years ago:

According to data compiled by the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division, a very large percentage of the students accessing federal student loans at the colleges where they have been made available are members of racial minorities. This fact was enough to make some lawmakers who support loan access to wonder out loud about darker, ulterior motives of some of the local colleges. Could it be that some of the people who run some of the state’s community colleges would simply prefer not to have some of the students who tend to access these loans around?  Given North Carolina’s long, troubled and ongoing history of segregated schools, it’s not at all difficult to believe.”

Whichever of the three reasons (or combination thereof) that is at work in the present situation, however, there is no disguising the fact that, ultimately, it is a matter of small-minded, backward-looking pessimism triumphing over caring, forward-looking optimism on a vitally important matter of public policy.

Sadly, that’s getting to be an extremely familiar pattern in North Carolina.

Image source: Photo of the Technology Building at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston Salem by  David Bjorgen is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Logo:  North Carolina Community College System.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.