Caitlin Zaloom, “Indebted”

Caitlin Zaloom discusses her book, “Indebted”, at Politics and Prose.

Based on a series of frank and personal discussions with students and parents across the nation, Zaloom‘s book documents how the struggle to finance college education is transforming middle-class life. An associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, a founding editor of Public Books, and author of Out of the Pits, Zaloom reveals the hidden consequences of student debt, describes the wrenching moral decisions parents make having to choose between jeopardizing their own financial security or forcing their children into debt, and relates the frustrations of navigating a labyrinth of government-sponsored programs, for-profit funders, and university aid requirements. Zaloom is in conversation with Dorian Warren, president of Community Change and Community Change Action.

Caitlin Zaloom is associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. She is a founding editor of Public Books and the author of Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London. She lives in New York City. Twitter @caitlinzaloom

Why Is College in America So Expensive?

All told, including the contributions of individual families and the government (in the form of student loans, grants, and other assistance), Americans spend about $30,000 per student a year—nearly twice as much as the average developed country. “The U.S. is in a class of its own,” says Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the OECD, and he does not mean this as a compliment. “Spending per student is exorbitant, and it has virtually no relationship to the value that students could possibly get in exchange.”

.. One reason for this difference is that American college students are far more likely to live away from home. And living away from home is expensive, with or without a lazy river. Experts say that campuses in Canada and Europe tend to have fewer dormitories and dining halls than campuses in the U.S. “The bundle of services that an American university provides and what a French university provides are very different,” says David Feldman, an economist focused on education at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Reasonable people can argue about whether American universities should have these kind of services, but the fact that we do does not mark American universities as inherently inefficient. It marks them as different.”

.. It turns out that the vast majority of American college spending goes to routine educational operations—like paying staff and faculty—not to dining halls. These costs add up to about $23,000 per student a year—more than twice what Finland, Sweden, or Germany spends on core services.

.. The business of providing an education is so expensive because college is different from other things that people buy, argue Feldman and his colleague Robert Archibald in their 2011 book, Why Does College Cost So Much? College is a service, for one thing, not a product, which means it doesn’t get cheaper along with changes in manufacturing technology (economists call this affliction “cost disease”). And college is a service delivered mostly by workers with college degrees—whose salaries have risen more dramatically than those of low-skilled service workers over the past several decades.

College is not the only service to have gotten wildly more expensive in recent decades, Feldman and Archibald point out. Since 1950, the real prices of the services of doctors, dentists, and lawyers have risen at similar rates as the price of higher education, according to Feldman and Archibald’s book. “The villain, as much as there is one, is economic growth itself,” they write.

.. In this public system, the high cost of college has as much to do with politics as economics. Many state legislatures have been spending less and less per student on higher education for the past three decades. Bewitched by the ideology of small government (and forced by law to balance their budgets during a period of mounting health-care costs), states have been leaving once-world-class public universities begging for money. The cuts were particularly stark after the 2008 recession, and they set off a cascading series of consequences, some of which were never intended.

The easiest way for universities to make up for the cuts was to shift some of the cost to students—and to find richer students. “Once that sustainable public funding was taken out from under these schools, they started acting more like businesses,” says Maggie Thompson, the executive director of Generation Progress, a nonprofit education-advocacy group. State cutbacks did not necessarily make colleges more efficient, which was the hope; they made colleges more entrepreneurial.

Some universities began to enroll more full-paying foreign and out-of-state students to make up the difference. Over the past decade, for example, Purdue University has reduced its in-state student population by 4,300 while adding 5,300 out-of-state and foreign students, who pay triple the tuition. “They moved away from working to educate people in their region to competing for the most elite and wealthy students—in a way that was unprecedented,” Thompson says.

This competition eventually crept beyond climbing walls and dining halls into major, long-term operating expenses. For example, U.S. colleges spend, relative to other countries, a startling amount of money on their nonteaching staff, according to the OECD data. Some of these people are librarians or career or mental-health counselors who directly benefit students, but many others do tangential jobs that may have more to do with attracting students than with learning. Many U.S. colleges employ armies of

  • fund-raisers,
  • athletic staff,
  • lawyers,
  • admissions and
  • financial-aid officers,
  • diversity-and-inclusion managers,
  • building-operations and maintenance staff,
  • security personnel,
  • transportation workers, and
  • food-service workers.

The international data is not detailed enough to reveal exactly which jobs are diverting the most money, but we can say that U.S. colleges spend more on nonteaching staff than on teachers, which is upside down compared with every other country that provided data to the OECD (with the exception of Luxembourg, naturally).

In addition, most global rankings of universities heavily weight the amount of research published by faculty—a metric that has no relationship to whether students are learning. But in a heated race for students, these rankings get the attention of college administrators, who push faculty to focus on research and pay star professors accordingly.

Likewise, the new data show that U.S. colleges currently have a slightly lower ratio of students to teachers than the average for the developed world—another metric favored in college rankings. But that is a very expensive way to compete. And among education researchers, there is no clear consensus about whether smaller classes are worth the money.

In the beginning, university administrators may have started competing for full-freight paying students in order to help subsidize other, less affluent students. But once other colleges got into the racket, it became a spending arms race. More and more universities had to participate, including private colleges unaffected by state cuts, just to keep their application numbers up. “There is such a thing as wasteful competition,” Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University professor and the author of Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity, wrote me in an email.

All that said, it’s also true that state budget cuts were uneven across the country. Today, in-state tuition in Wyoming is about a third of the cost of Vermont, for example. In places where higher education has not been gutted and the cost of living is low, an American college degree can still be a bargain—especially for students who don’t mind living at home and are poor enough to qualify for federal aid. Taking into account living expenses, says Alex Usher of the consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, a student at a public university in Mississippi will likely end up with similar out-of-pocket costs as a student in Sweden.

.. Usher, who is based in Toronto, is one of the few researchers to have looked carefully at the costs of higher education globally. And much of what he finds is surprising. In 2010, he and his colleague Jon Medow created a clever ranking of 15 countries’ higher-education systems—using a variety of ways to assess affordability and access. Reading the report is like peeling an onion. The first layer focuses on the most obvious question: the affordability of college based on the cost of tuition, books, and living expenses divided by the median income in a given country. By this metric, the U.S. does very poorly, ranking third from the bottom. Only Mexico and Japan do worse.

But the U.S. moves up one place when grants and tax credits are included. “Your grants are actually really generous compared to everybody else,” Usher says. Tuition is higher in the U.S., so the grants don’t fully cover the price, but 70 percent of full-time students do receive some kind of grant aidaccording to the College Board. From this perspective, sometimes called “net cost,” Australia is more expensive than the U.S.

Next, looking only at our public colleges, the U.S. rises higher still, ranking in the middle of the pack in Usher’s analysis, above Canada and New Zealand. This data is from 2010, and things may look less rosy if he were to redo the study now, Usher cautions. But still, he sounds weirdly hopeful. “The public system in the U.S. is working as well as most systems,” he says. “Parts of the U.S. look like France.”

The problem, of course, is that other parts of the U.S. look more like a Louis Vuitton store. America basically contains 50 different higher-education systems, one per state, each with public, private, and for-profit institutions, making generalizations all but impossible. The U.S. does relatively well on measures of access to college, but the price varies wildly depending on the place and the person. Somehow, students have to find their way through this thicket of competition and choose wisely, or suffer the consequences.

.. The more I studied America’s baffling higher-education system, the more it reminded me of health care. In both spaces, Americans pay twice as much as people in other developed countries—and get very uneven results. The U.S. spends nearly $10,000 a person on health care each year (25 percent more than Switzerland, the next biggest spender), according to the OECD’s 2017 Health at a Glance report, but our life expectancy is now almost two years below the average for the developed world.

“I used to joke that I could just take all my papers and statistical programs and globally replace hospitals with schoolsdoctors with teachers and patients with students,” says Dartmouth College’s Douglas Staiger, one of the few U.S. economists who studies both education and health care.

Both systems are more market driven than in just about any other country, which makes them more innovative—but also less coherent and more exploitive. Hospitals and colleges charge different prices to different people, rendering both systems bewilderingly complex, Staiger notes. It is very hard for regular people to make informed decisions about either, and yet few decisions could be more important.

In both cases, the most vulnerable people tend to make less-than-ideal decisions. For example, among high-achieving, low-income students (who have grades and test scores that put them in the top 4 percent of U.S. students and would be eligible for generous financial aid at elite colleges), the vast majority apply to no selective colleges at all, according to research by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery. “Ironically, these students are often paying more to go to a nonselective four-year college or even a community college than they would pay to go to the most selective, most resource-rich institutions in the United States,” as Hoxby told NPR.

Meanwhile, when it comes to health care, low-income Americans tend to be less familiar with the concepts of deductibles, coinsurance rates, and provider networks, according to a variety of studies, which makes it extremely difficult to choose a health-care plan. “These are both sectors where consumers are too poorly informed and societal costs and benefits too great to leave decision-making entirely in the hands of individuals,” as Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution has written.

Ultimately, college is expensive in the U.S. for the same reason MRIs are expensive: There is no central mechanism to control price increases. “Universities extract money from students because they can,” says Schleicher at the OECD. “It’s the inevitable outcome of an unregulated fee structure.” In places like the United Kingdom, the government limits how much universities can extract by capping tuition. The same is true when it comes to health care in most developed countries, where a centralized government authority contains the prices.

The U.S. federal government has historically been unwilling to perform this role. So Americans pay more for pharmaceuticals—and for college classes. Meanwhile, more and more of the risk gets shifted from government onto families, in both sectors.

At the very least, the American government could do a better job sharing information about the quality of colleges in ways everyone can understand, Schleicher says. “You can’t force people to buy good things or bad things, but they should be able to see what the value is.”

America’s Factory Towns, Once Solidly Blue, Are Now a GOP Haven

A generation ago, Democrats represented much of the country’s manufacturing base. Now, it’s in GOP hands, a swing remaking both parties

After the 1992 election, 15 of the 20 most manufacturing-intensive Congressional districts in America were represented by Democrats. Today, all 20 are held by Republicans.

The shift of manufacturing from a Democratic stronghold to a Republican one is a major force remaking the two parties. It helps explain Donald Trump’s political success, the rise of Republican protectionism and the nation’s polarized politics. It will help shape this year’s midterm elections.

.. The new manufacturing heartland runs through areas outside suburbs along interstate highways south from Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin through Ohio and into the Carolinas and the deep South.

There, whites without a college education, who identified with the Republican Party’s focus on social issues and abortion restrictions, took up many of the factory jobs. The Trump administration’s tough stance on trade deepened the bonds with workers who believed they were hurt by free-trade deals.

.. “My image of Republicans is of a blue-collar type,” says Larry Smith, a 68-year-old weave room supervisor at Greenwood Mills Inc. in South Carolina’s third Congressional District. He voted for Democrats before, including Barack Obama in 2008, but sided with Mr. Trump in 2016. “Democrats come from more financially successful groups.”

His boss, Jay Self, says a lot of local voters were turned off to the Democratic Party when Bill Clinton eased the entry of China into the WTO in the late 1990s, which he blames for wrecking the textile business. His family-owned business employed around 3,000 people in the U.S. in 2000, he says. Now that workforce is just 320.

.. Rep. Derrick, who died in 2014, was succeeded by a series of Republicans, all of whom took conservative positions on social issues and opposed the free trade deals unpopular in the district. “Down here, the Democrats shifted their attention to career people like in the medical industry, accountant or lawyers,” Clemson University political scientist David Woodard. But current factory workers, he said, came from “linthead” families, using the local term for textile workers. “They all love Trump.”

Voters for Democrats now tend to be better educated, more urban and less likely to identify themselves as blue-collar than Republicans and Independents, according to pollsters.

.. While House Democrats overwhelmingly oppose free-trade deals, their voters don’t. By a 57% to 16% margin, Democrats said that free trade helped the U.S

.. Republicans, meanwhile, have become more attuned to the desires of manufacturers and their workers. They have led a crackdown on immigration, moved away from plans to privatize Social Security and support some infrastructure spending. Most notably, the party has retreated from free trade.

.. In December 1999, the earliest that The Wall Street Journal/NBC polled on trade issues, Republicans by a 37% to 31% margin said that free trade deals helped the U.S. By February 2017, the results were vastly different. By a 53% to 27% margin, Republicans said free trade hurt the U.S.

.. If his tariffs—and retaliation—damage local economies, the GOP could find its blue-collar base in a surly mood or apathetic about voting

.. Seven area golf courses, long establishment Republican strongholds, have closed since 2012. Without the GM plant, “there is no middle-level management that can afford the dues structure anymore,

.. At a meeting with local business leaders in May, he likened trade to a basketball game. “They are not calling fouls and no one is taking free throws,” he told the group. “I’m glad President Trump is making them call fouls.”

Black people aren’t keeping white Americans out of college. Rich people are.

What better time to change the conversation and re-energize the base? And what better way than by raising the lightning rod that is affirmative action?

.. Justice Department officials attempted to play down the initiative after the story broke, stating that they planned to investigate a single complaint involving Asian American applicants, not whites. But it barely mattered. The message was sent.

.. Affirmative action is a consistent hobbyhorse on the right because it combines real anxieties with compelling falsehoods.
.. At 38 top colleges in the United States, more students come from the top 1 percent of income earners than from the bottom 60 percent. Really leveling the admissions playing field, assuming the Trump administration actually cares about doing so, would involve much broader efforts to redistribute wealth and power. A focus on fringe campaigns against affirmative action suggests it does not.
.. Addressing inequalities in K-12 education, for instance, could help at-risk students of all races increase their chances of attending a top college
.. Pressing universities to drop legacy preferences, following the example of other elite schools such as the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge, could free up spots for those without that built-in advantage. Trump’s own wealthy-parent-sponsored education at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by the subsequent admission of three of his four adult children, makes that particular initiative seem unlikely.
.. the Trump Justice Department’s proposed attack on affirmative action is a microcosm of how the president won the 2016 election and continues to maintain a base of support.
First, Trump taps into a mainstream concern, one tied to how America’s economic system is changing and how some individuals are left at the margin:
  • Employment?
  • Immigration?
  • College?
  • Take your pick.
Then, instead of addressing the issue in a way that embraces both its complexity and well-established research, officials opt for simplistic talking points known to inflame an already agitated base: Immigrants are sneaking into the country and stealing your jobs! Minorities are pushing you out of college!

.. The Trump administration assumes that picking race-focused fights is the most successful way to distract from its failures and to pander to a grievance-inspired base. The level of support for this latest attempt may prove it right.

A Quick Way to Cut College Costs

Consider a family of four, earning $100,000 in income and having $50,000 in savings. The E.F.C. says that this family will contribute $17,375 each year to a child’s college expenses. A $100,000 income translates into take-home pay of about $6,311 monthly. An E.F.C. of $17,375 means the family must contribute about $1,500 a month — every month for four years. But cutting family expenses by 25 percent every month is unrealistic.

.. Meanwhile, lobbying expenditures by colleges, universities and higher-education organizations have totaled more than a half-billion dollars over the past five years — the eighth highest special-interest category attempting to influence Congress.