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College in Credit Card Nation

May 15, 2007, 4:04 pm

Having just made it through one college admission season in Credit Card Nation, I am bracing for the next. One of the down sides of being involved in the Higher Ed Biz is that people with college-age children believe or hope that we who are on The Job can give some kind of useful advice about how to get into a great school. This often leaves the Radical in a tough spot. For example, I honestly don’t know why people do or do not get into Zenith, since I imagine, like everything else, it changes from year to year and I haven’t seen a first-year file for four years. And even if I had, I still couldn’t tell you. Different applicants fill different instutional desires, and those desires are not always predictable. My students exhibit a range of talents and abilities about which I cannot generalize in any useful way, or translate into a “good” application. Some write well; others write poorly. Some are good at managing school; others might be better off renting a loft and creating art full-time. Some seem like unusually original thinkers, others are as conventional, and as successful, as Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But I have no idea *why* any of them got in. Or why other talented students whose heart’s desire was to climb Zenith’s heights did not.

And of course there is that nice lady at MIT who could get other people into college, but didn’t go herself. Maybe that’s the ticket: work your way to the top instead of going to college, like Horatio Alger.

But I digress. This summer, the aspirants will begin to descend again: the children of friends; or the children of friends of friends; or the children of colleagues at Big Research Institutions, people who would never want to work at anything but an R-I school but who are clear that their children will get a better shot at a good education at a small school. And at least half of those who actually come to Zenith will be paying the bill with borrowed money, something they will try not to think about now.

I will admit that I do know some things about the choices available in higher education: for example, why you would choose a place *like* Zenith rather than an equally selective big university. I can also offer my view on, specifically, what the specific strengths and weaknesses of Zenith are at this moment in time. But honestly, much as I do think we offer an excellent education, I don’t know why anyone would choose a private school over a public school nowadays, when the bill for a student entering Zenith and its peer institutions in the fall will be close to $200K for four years. And when they are going to pay up to 9% interest on at least half that money for several decades.

Note: this is one reason why some of us don’t have children. If I had that much money, I would want to spend it on myself. And now that I have seen Julie Christie do the mental dissolve in front of her husband’s eyes in “Away From Her” I also know I wouldn’t spend that money on assisted living either.

I’m thinking Paris. Or early retirement. Or early retirement in Paris.

Anyway, back to colleges. Thanks to the muck-raking Andrew Cuomo and the string he pulled in New York state that is unravelling the national sweater, I would advise everyone who is sending a child to college to shop for a student loan like they would shop for a gas grill or a car. How about those Republican bastards, having cleaned out the elderly, the sick and the poor, going after students too? The latest bunch of criminals to fall into the net are Sallie Mae and JP Morgan. Of course, the name Morgan should all make us think “robber baron” anyway, so who’s surprised? And Sallie Mae, in addition to making loans to captive audiences that will never make a nickel without a B.A., also issues a credit card, which should cause people to smell a rat. Presumably, you can also charge your books and airline tickets at up to 30% interest, now the highest legal commercial lending rate permitted by — you guessed it, a Republican Congress that repeatedly raised the ceiling on interest rates.

Come to think of it, why have we made student loans a for-profit industry at all? Sorry, I forgot. The free market. An end to government supporting the weak, the poor and the oppressed. Better to be Credit Card Nation than Wimp Nation.

Well wait — back off the cynicism a minute, Radical. I guess we *were* surprised that the colleges and universities themselves, non-profit institutions all, were actually getting paid to allow education lenders to rip off college and graduate students. Who knew?

Surprise! As it turns out, the Department of Education in a Republican Administration knew at least four years ago, although this is a story that has not been particularly well covered except on National Public Radio, where you can listen to part of the hearings. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings who, like everybody else in the Bush cabinet now spends her time either testifying before a congressional committee or preparing to do so, was unable to respond adequately last Thursday when George Miller (D-California) asked her why the Department knew about the “gifts” (aka, graft, or kickbacks) given to financial aid officers and did nothing to stop it. You can also read about it here, thanks to a link to the Guardian’s story from Anya Kamenetz’s excellent blog Generation Debt (methinks there is a book too, but start with the blog.)

You will be glad to know the Democratic Congress has just passed legislation to stop this gift-giving, although they have not yet taken action to end the gifts they and their re-election campaigns receive. Another day, perhaps.

You will also be glad to know that, luckily for the students who are already saddled with these loans, there is a built-in way to pay them back in less than twenty or thirty years. You can join the military and earn from partial to full repayment of your loans by getting parts of your body shot off in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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