Student Debt, An Impending Crash

Introduction

According to some economists, scholars, and researchers the future of national student debt burden is bleak. As the number of students attending college increases, so too does the debt they incur. An article in the New York Times cited that average tuition at a four year institution has risen 68% over the last decade against the backdrop of decreased earnings (Blow, 2013). Who shoulders the blame for soaring tuition? Is it government subsidies, borrower credit mismanagement, exploitation by the universities, inflation, or simple supply and demand? Perhaps it is a tapestry of many sources laid to rest on the shoulders of the struggling college student.

In looking at the issue of student debt that is facing the nation, it is important to examine several components that affect both the policy formation and shape the future policy. This includes looking at the rational and non-rational components in the form of stakeholders and policy narratives; in other words, the human element. The approach used to accomplish this task is the Five-Step method as outlined in the text, Public Policy Praxis.

I. Problem Definition
Before proceeding with the problem definition it is important to note the importance of this phase of the policy process. It is argued time and time again that how a problem definition is crafted sets the tone for the rest of the policy cycle. Two issues that can affect the policy process are what Professor Deborah Stone refers to as the “strategically crafted argument” and the social constructions surrounding policy narratives (Smith, 2009). According to the book, Theories of the Policy Process, social constructs are created by policy makers to cast beneficiaries or recipients in either a positive or negative light. In turn, the distribution of benefits or encumbrances reflects and further defines the perception of the target population. The book further delineates target groups into four classifications: advantaged, contenders, dependents and deviants (Sabatier, 2007, p 101-103). Students in particular, are cast into the classification of dependents.

socialconstructs

As the chart from Theories of the Policy Process shows, the individuals and groups in the “dependent” category are conceptualized in a positive light but have little power. Students fit this category because although they are not seen as a direct drain on the economy, they are not seen as a politically powerful (i.e. monetary) contributor like those in the “advantaged group”.

What are the implications of social constructs in the policy arena? It can mean that the light and shadows cast by non-rational definitions surrounding money and power affect who gets what and how they get it. Social construction scholars contend that support and resources are not extended to dependent groups until predicated as past the point of no return or a crisis. In this case, what some call the looming and inevitable crash of the national student debt, is enough to grab the country’s political ear.

For the purposes of the this policy analysis it is important to define what student loan debt actually encompasses. According a study reported by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York student debt is any debt or loan that is qualified, by Equifax credit reports, to finance education. This includes all types of higher education degree levels, graduates, drop-outs, those in default, those in repayment and both federal and private loans (Lee, 2013). What is not included in this definition is family contribution, equity taken on property, personal loans, loans on assets, or credit card debt.

Although student loan debt is not new, it has experienced a rapid acceleration since the Great Recession. According to Donghoon Lee, student loan debt is quickly approach one trillion dollars. It is the largest household debt second only to mortgages (Lee, 2013). The average student borrowers now graduate with more than $26,000 in debt, and nearly 13% with more than $50,000 (Stiglitz, 2013). Debts of this size coupled with a weak job market affect other areas such as the housing market, the purchase of vehicles or other consumer commodities and even household size.

The rising cost of tuition in conjunction with declining household income in a weak job market creates insurmountable student loan debt. Solutions to current tuition costs and higher education financing must be proposed to stop the bleeding. Care must be taken to prohibit compromising the quality of higher education or diminishing the quest of the American dream as realized though the pursuit of higher education.

II. Criteria to Evaluate Alternatives
Technical feasibility
Can changes be made to the future of student debt? Will changes made at the state or federal level be effective in the long run? Do they make sense? This county certainly has the expertise to work out a plan that will hopefully save tax payer money and continue to provide education for its citizens. But at what cost to current students, institutions and tax payers?

Economic feasibility and Cost effectiveness
What will the cost be to tax payers, students and institutions if the current system is overhauled? If there is a reduction in the Pell Grant Program it would certainly be a cost saving to tax payers, but how will other stakeholders react? Does it smell of elitism? If institutions become state funded how will that affect staff members and the quality of education? Cost effectiveness essentially rests on an effective policy. Not all effective policy is the lease expensive to initiate. The cost factor has to be weighed against the potential crash of the national student debt.

Political viability
How will affected stakeholders respond to proposed reforms in student debt? This criteria speaks the loudest to the previously mentioned “strategic argument” and social construction. The picture of student debt reform can be painted as a “right” to the American dream through education. Or excessive student debt could be touted as wasteful, superfluous and a reckless problem that students are to deal with alone. Both sides of the aisle could opine their particular version to constituents.

Legality and ethics
There is no law that governs the right to higher education. However, policies would have to be examined from a standpoint of how the new laws could affect individuals who are currently facing student loan debt. In addition, any changes such as state or federal tuition systems would have to have laws in place for what happens when repayment is not possible such as in death or incarceration. Also, for these types of policies how would repayment be tracked for people who relocate or cannot work. In the manner of ethics, is it ethical to slash subsidies? It may be cost effective but what about the notion that higher education is tantamount to success in future earnings. Is it ethical to cut off the means for upward mobility to a sector of the population?

III. Policy Alternatives
There are several possible policy suggestions that could be prescribed to alleviate student debt. Four are listed below:
A. Do nothing: It is clear from looking at the evidence of how an impending crash in national student debt could affect stakeholder groups. Therefore “do nothing” is not an option and it will not be considered in the next section.

B. Reduce the Pell Grant program: This might be the most cost effective means in reference to tax payers. However, it does not hold its salt in terms of ethics. It also does not hold political viability in terms of helping disadvantaged groups.

C. State Funded Tuition: This is an alternative that is currently entering the policy cycle in Oregon. Under this policy students enrolled in college do not pay tuition or take out loans. Instead, they later pay back the cost to the state based on their income (Perez-Pena, 2013). This has the potential to appease many stakeholder groups, but the cost effectiveness might be called into question. There could be an issue if students do not become employed, or take longer to finish school. What if they become incarcerated or incapacitated? What if they relocate to another state? What is the cost of tracking from state to state? In addition, how will this affect the quality of education? In terms of political viability could this affect tourism or economic development? It is feasible to think that residents of one state may flock to another for a “free education”.

D. Federally Funded Tuition: If higher education comes under the direction of the federal government it would cause states to shoulder the administrative time and cost. The benefits would be trackability of students and politically viability to economic development and tourism stakeholders. A solution of this magnitude might be the easiest to administer in terms of locating the decision making and repayment tracking to one central location. It would also reduce program variability. But would this in turn mean an increase in the size of government or the cost to operate the program? It certainly is not against any laws or ethics, but how would some stakeholder groups feel about “Big Brother” taking over the organization of higher education?

IV. Evaluate and Select Policies
There are many ways to examine proposed policy alternatives against the evaluation criteria. In this instance, the Goeller Scorecard with Weighted Criteria was used to evaluate policies B,C, and D. This allows the decision maker to assign a numerical ranking to each policy in terms of desirability across cost, political feasibility, and administrative feasibility. As a single analyst performing this evaluation policy B and C tied with 13 points each. Policy D received 10 points. When performing the tie break, policy B, State Funded Tuition came out ahead and will be pushed forward as the recommended policy. When looking at the evaluating criteria the least expensive option may not always be the most politically viable option, the easiest to administer, or most ethical and vice versa. It should also be noted that given larger time and space constraints most analysts would base policy selection on numerous other sources. The Goeller Scorecard although subjective, could be used in conjunction with other sources such as expert opinion, group brainstorming sessions, stakeholder interviews, surveys or focus groups.

V. Evaluate Adopted Policy
If the State Funded Tuition policy is adopted it will need to come with a proposal to evaluate the success of the program in mitigating the risk of excessive national student debt. Policy makers will have to propose some goals so that they can be measured for short term and long term results. Evaluations could be surveys of enrollment, analysis of institution financials, rates of graduation, surveys of the job market, measures of national average household size, homeownership by age, and fluctuations of commodities. Evaluation outcome determines program continuation, mutation or termination.

Summary
In reality the policy process is a social construct heavy, value-conflict laden, messy process. In many instances policies can take years (or new Administrations) to pass. It is also very possible that policies can be a combination of parts of several polices that appease certain stakeholders. It is clear there is no way to separate non-rational elements of judgments and values from the process. Nor is there any perfect way to include every group or individual in the stakeholder selection. In the end, the process is decidedly non-rational in nature but necessary to Democracy as we know it.

 

References
Blow, Charles M. (March 8, 2013). “A dangerous ‘new normal’ in college debt.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/09/opinion/blow-a-dangerous-new-normal-in-college- debt.html?_r=0
Clemons, Randy S. and McBeth, Mark K. 2009. Public Policy Praxis. Pearson Education, Inc.

Lee, Donghoon. (February 28, 2013). “Household debt and credit: student debt.” http://www.newyorkfed.org/newsevents/mediaadvisory/2013/Lee022813.pdf
Sabatier, Paul. Theories of the Policy Process.Second Edition. 2007. Boulder, Colorado. West View Press.
Smith, Kevin B. and Christopher W. Larimer.The Public Policy Theory Primer. 2009. Boulder, Colorado. Westview Press.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. (May 12, 2013). “Student debt and the crushing of the American dream.” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/student-debt-and-the-crushing-of-the- american-dream/