Why Direct Student Lending Doesn’t Threaten Academic Freedom
As a sideshow to health care reform, advocates for student affordability may finally get a great reform that’s taken years to accomplish: direct student lending. For years, private banks have loaned money to college students, while the federal government guaranteed the money. All profit, no risk. No wonder they’re desperate to hang onto a program when an estimated $67 billion could be saved by taxpayers over the next 11 years. Even in Washington, that’s what they call real money. Conservatives in Congress are the biggest advocates of this crony capitalism, disproving once and for all the laughable claims of Republicans to be the fiscally-responsible party.
But like everything else in this extended silly season of politics, the far right is attacking direct student lending as a vast government conspiracy to take over higher education in America.
Peter Wood, head of the National Association of Scholars, worries about "the specter of federal control of American higher education. ‘Obama loans’ may seem benign but they threaten academic freedom and may compromise the quality of academic programs." Wood is dead wrong. There is no possible threat to academic freedom or the quality of academic programs from reforming the student loan system. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to students or colleges whether the check comes from a bank or the federal government. It only matters to the taxpayers (and the bank’s investors).
Yet according to Wood, "It will make American higher education extraordinarily vulnerable to political interference. Will Congress, presidential administrations, and the Department of Education resist the temptation to misuse their new power?" What new power? There has been only one clear-cut abuse of the old power the government has always had since student loan program began, and it was cheered by conservatives. Conservatives didn’t mind when the Solomon Amendment forced all private colleges that accept any federal funds to allow discriminatory military recruiters on their private property, nor did conservatives mind when the Supreme Court upheld this violations of private property rights by the government. However, this threat had absolutely nothing to do with the manner of financing student loans.
The real fear of the right is that more students may get a college education. Wood proclaims, "Voila! The great majority of college students are instantly long-term government clients who will spend the first decades of their working lives paying down their debt to Obama Loans." Voila? College students already are government "clients" who owe money to the government if they fail to pay their loans. Under the Bush Administration, did Wood denounce the "Bush Loans" students received?
Sadly, the right wing has become so hateful of academia that they actually oppose Obama’s idea of encouraging more students to attend college. Thus, we get nonsensical blathering like Wood’s claim that "Obama Ed threatens to destroy higher education by making it the intellectual equivalent of today’s high schools. College for everyone regardless of ability is college for no one." Expanding access to higher education doesn’t lower the quality of education. This was the fear expressed by many elitists after World War II when the GI Bill was passed, and it turned out to be completely wrong.
According to Wood, "The Direct Lending system would create an unparalleled choke point over higher education....the choke point will be used to force colleges and universities to scale up and eliminate obstacles to expansion." What nonsense. Exactly how can the federal government force any colleges to accept more students? Never mind the fact that many colleges are thrilled to have more students, but all of the paranoia in the world still won’t help this absurd theory make any sense.
Wood claims, "We might well end up with the educational equivalent of ‘death panels.’" I couldn’t have come up with a better analogy than that. Just as "death panels" were a purely imaginary lie spouted by half-wit right-wing nutjobs like Sarah Palin, Wood’s conspiracy theories are its educational equivalent.
Wood’s theory (and the support from other thoughtful conservatives, such as the blog Critical Mass) reveals a worrisome development on the right, where implausible conspiracy theories are becoming the dominant ideology of the Republican Party, pushed on a daily basis by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, who actually imagines that Barack Obama is intentionally destroying the economy to solidify his power.
Encouraging more students to get a college education will not lead to the death of civilization. A change in accounting practices for student loans will not cause the federal government to take over higher education. And Direct Student Loans will not destroy America.
Crossposted at DailyKos.