Volume VI, #20
In college, my roommates and I did many things for which we had little interest in taking responsibility. Top of mind: Leaving a hulking old refrigerator in the middle of Old Campus, trying to get the School of Organization and Management to organize our bookshelf, and calling the direct line of the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, impersonating Ross Perot, and demanding to be called back. But there’s an equally long list of bad things for which we were happy to be held accountable. These include convincing the girls next door that the moldy pizza in the stairwell was an effort to make medicine for an ill roommate who couldn’t afford antibiotics, moving Political Union elections to an annex office in a somewhat dangerous New Haven neighborhood in order to depress turnout, and – not unrelated – running our roommate Alex for College Council President with the memorable campaign slogan “A Little Less Gunplay.”
If we were in school today, I doubt the lists would be close to equilibrium. As a loving critic of our system of higher education, I'm highly sympathetic to the plight of today's students pertaining to credentials, programs of study, completion, employability and especially affordability. I’m also self-aware enough to recognize that criticism of “kids today” from someone like me tends to come across like a crazy old man yelling “Get Off My Lawn!” But neither of these sentiments will stop me from asserting that today’s students are a country mile from prior generations in taking responsibility for solving their own problems.
The Yale campus last year is a good example. Students confronted faculty members in a range of settings – several receiving national attention – as a result of a legitimate sense that they had suffered discrimination; when the Yale Daily News dug in and surveyed students, between 27% and 54% of minority students reported discrimination. But the source of this discrimination was overwhelmingly (95%) other students, not faculty or university staff. What should be done? Survey results indicated majority support for ten different university initiatives including renaming buildings, doubling funding for cultural centers, more mental health services, a new academic center for race and ethnicity, and improving financial aid; there was no indication that students felt they were best positioned to address – or bore any responsibility whatsoever for – student-on-student discrimination.
Writing in The New Yorker last fall, Harvard Law Professor Jeannie Suk noted that today’s protests are the opposite of prior generations. Whereas their parents’ protests were aimed at figuratively “killing the father,” today’s protests are expressions of a “need for care from authority figures.” Colleges are expected to care for students as parents did at home. Suk points out how the tropes of safety and home figure prominently in students’ lexicon: “my home is being threatened.”
We should be concerned about student homes, but more so the ones they can’t afford to buy as a result of excessive student loan debt. So while it shouldn’t come as a surprise that today’s students are asking for the government to solve the problem, it’s noteworthy that the reaction to student financial insecurity is not whether to accede, but how much, and how quickly. Whether it’s free college, borrower defense to repayment, or – most defensible – loan forgiveness for students who attended Corinthian or ITT schools (where Senate Democrats have begun pushing for a new first: automatic discharge), these new high-profile initiatives now dwarf prior efforts to inculcate financial responsibility in students.
These efforts can’t have been particularly effective as, according to the New America Foundation, there are almost 1,500 colleges and universities where the majority of students who borrowed federal loans are making interest-only payments on their loans, or no payments at all. How is this possible? All schools – not only for-profits – encourage students to take advantage of an ever-lengthening list of options for avoiding default, including forbearance or deferment programs, and increasingly income-driven repayment programs. With regard to affordability and student loan debt, we have created a culture of non-payment and non-compliance – a culture that contributes to and is informed by the broader problem of failing to take responsibility for solving one’s own problems.
Most, if not all of the blame here should be assigned to parents and educators, not to students themselves. We parent much differently than our parents did. Helicopter parents program their children and solve more of their problems than our parents did for us. And at most colleges and universities, a boomlet in deanlets means care and feeding of students in ways that were unimaginable 20 years ago. As a result, while today’s college students are more advanced than prior generations in many respects, they’re behind in learning to take responsibility and solve their own problems.
Why, for example, are we debating a new rule around forgiving student loans, but not a new rule that would require all institutions receiving Title IV funds to provide at least 10% of funds received in the form of an institution-based Income Share Agreement? Doing so would align the interests of institutions with students, require both to be accountable for outcomes, and teach financial responsibility.
What’s most ironic about this is that a primary reason students are insecure – on campus and after graduation (or especially after dropping out) – is employability. Meanwhile, among the competencies employers find most lacking among today’s students are leadership, taking initiative and problem solving. It’s no wonder that 50-80% of students are unemployed at graduation, and 5 million jobs remain unfilled.
Even more than employability, today’s students face unparalleled financial challenges around college affordability and student loan debt. So there’s no question of holding students to the same standards of financial responsibility as prior generations. Not even close. But as we evaluate ways to change the college affordability environment, we must do so in ways that are not only fiscally responsible, but so as to facilitate responsible behavior – not to obviate responsible behavior. If students aren’t learning to take responsibility at home, college is where they must learn this. Otherwise millions of new college graduates will be wholly unprepared for work and life, which will further undermine employer confidence in the entire higher education enterprise.
To the activists and policy makers behind initiatives like free college, borrower defense to repayment and loan forgiveness: your heart is the right place. But we need to remember that no matter how we might parent our own children, we are educators first and foremost. Caring is good; educating is better. And rather than preparing the road for students by solving problems for them, education requires preparing our students for the road ahead (a road that winds pass my house, where I’m outside in boxers and an undershirt, jumping up and down, yelling at students, and their parents and teachers, to “Get Off My Lawn!”).
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