Student debt and educational protectionism

Student debt and educational protectionism

Student debt and educational protectionism

About a month ago, I finished a hazing ritual that most American university students endure annually: completion and submission of the federal loan forms. Pretty much everyone has to suffer this process since even financial awards – i.e. the person is being paid to attend the institution rather than paying – cannot be disbursed without a federal financial record. Immediately before completing the form, there is a section detailing ways that a federal educational loan can be forgiven. Most of the methods involved death or disability. The only two viable paths to loan forgiveness while keeping life and limb are to either work as a public servant for ten years or to teach for five years at a primary or secondary school classified as disadvantaged. But there are hidden catches.

Public servant is a fairly broad category, and the chances that the phrase in this case signifies “very important embassy worker” are pretty much nil. Rather, it is more a euphemism for “overqualified, underpaid bureaucrat in a probably completely superfluous position.” America doesn’t have “fonctionnaires” in the European sense; our average government worker does not receive exceptionally good pay, enviable vacation periods, and a solid pension. Those few government positions that do come with such perks are almost exclusively occupied by alumni of elite universities. Consequently, there is very little professional incentive to join government agencies. There is, however, a custom, dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, of government work becoming a type of dole. Public servant debt forgiveness is simply an extension of this. It is not a particularly wieldy idea, based on a Forbes article published on August 14, 2018, titled “Student Loan Forgiveness Dos and Don’ts,” the general gist of which is that those who take the public service route must apply for consideration and then pay tax on the amount forgiven.

The real problem is the forgiveness contingent upon teaching. To qualify, a candidate must rank within the top twenty percent of the class of his specific academic field, i.e. a chemistry student must rank within the top percentiles of all chemistry students graduating from his particular university. In theory, it sounds wonderful: What better way to elevate underperforming schools than to have the best and the brightest go teach in them?

The old adage “those who can, do; those who cannot, teach” might easily be applied to the contemporary American primary and secondary public education systems. This divide occurs at the university level. When an entering student is called to enroll, he is asked to choose a specific subject and then to clarify if he intends to be a “pure” subject major (research/professional track) or to be an education major (teaching track), which is associated, fairly or unfairly, with being the watered-down, less academically rigorous path. This peculiar divide is the result of the federal government closing teacher training colleges in the 1960s and merging the students into the research universities. It was all part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s expansion of the welfare state, dubbed “The Great Society.” The exact purpose of the merger is still unclear – probably something trite about socialization and mixing. As a product of this system, I can personally testify that it is deeply divided: the “best and the brightest” students, those who “can,” choose the research track, while those who lag behind select the education track. (I should note that I have known some exceptions to this rule, but invariably they had unusual personal circumstances that necessitated choosing an education major.)      

Only those who select the second track are eligible to become teachers in the public schools, and therefore for student loan forgiveness via teaching. In other words, students who actually excel at mathematics, music, history, languages, etc. and chose their tracks accordingly are not allowed to become the instructors of those subjects, at least in the public schools – private schools actively recruit pure track graduates, which might help explain the edge American private schools have over their public counterparts. The exclusion of research/professional students from the primary and secondary level teaching arenas is relatively recent, beginning post-World War II. Before the War, it was accepted custom for recent university graduates, including my own grandparents, to teach for a few years to build a nest egg before continuing onto the next stage of their careers; in some states, formal graduation was unnecessary with two years of superior performance at a university (not a teachers college) acting as adequate credentialing for teaching in the public schools.

In the current system, not only are young professionals denied opportunity, but children are deprived of role models. An entire generation of American sociologists, best represented by Dr. Charles Murray, has repeatedly written about the loss of adequate role models for children in vulnerable sections of society, hypothesizing that better role models would lead to higher achievement and an exit from deprivation for such people. The prevailing assumption is that the metaphorical Harvard graduates don’t want to sully themselves by walking through the door of an underperforming school and sharing their insights and capabilities with the lower orders. While there may be some truth to this stereotype, it does ignore that the graduates are not allowed to do such a thing in the first place.

While the student and credentialing caste system created by the regulations regarding who may and may not teach in a public school is ridiculous, more problematic is the “forgiveness” program for teachers. As a friend of mine who chose to take the education track and forgiveness program drily said of it, “it’s in the fine print.” My friend discovered after teaching all levels of music for the requisite five years at a school classified as rural/underprivileged – her stories convinced me that the government classification and associated subsidy system ought to be reevaluated, especially regarding what is and is not a metric for “deprived” – that because her specialty is not categorized as a “core” subject, she only qualified for 1/4 of the promised forgiveness amount. My friend’s situation illustrates the risibility of the excessively centralized nature of American public education; under her leadership, the students of the school have consistently performed well in regional music competitions, opening up possibilities for them of scholarships and further training, while the “core” subject scores in the entire school district remain low. In economic terms, what happened to my friend is equivalent to a market distortion.

Perhaps on some level, “market distortion” describes the current American public education system. It is protectionism at two levels: who can teach and then, once in, who is important among teachers. In the current system, a mathematics or sciences teacher whose pupils never score well on national placement exams is more important than a music teacher whose students attract positive attention, including scholarship offers, by simple virtue of a centralized diktat by a remote government. Like historic protectionism, the system demonstrates the three traditional pillars: lack of competitiveness, workers who live in a bubble untethered to the value they create or the results they obtain, and consumers who are worse off than before. It is a travesty, but since any suggestion of introducing competition is greeted with horror, it is unlikely to change.   

Mary Lucia Darst

Mary Lucia Darst
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