According to this morning’s New York Times, in his state of the union address Obama will call for a cap on student loan repayments. The formula will set a maximum of 10% of post-graduation income above a living allowance. Money not collected due to the cap will be replaced from the general budget.
Is this better than nothing? Yes. It removes a bit of the pressure on grads who face a harsh job market or who want to explore less pecuniary pathways in life. It also encourages students to borrow more for their education, which is a good idea if it allows them to cut back on the number of hours they try to work as they go to school, study, raise kids and cope with life’s other challenges. The cost of tuition has gone up relentlessly, and students have responded by trying to earn more, at the expense of their ability to graduate in a reasonable amount of time and remain sane in the process.
But why is this proposal so much less than it should be? For decades education policy analysts have been calling for putting student loan repayment on an ability to pay basis. Repayment should be set as a fixed percentage of income, with a proportionality between the amount of the loan taken out and the number of years of repayment. Some, who make a bundle, would end up paying more, others less. The system would be progressive and predictable. It would also pay for itself, which in principle frees up more public money for reducing tuition in the first place. (Obama would have lower-income students paying a little less, but no one paying more.)
There is a larger debate that ought to be held around using tuition to pay for the costs of public education. Outside the US this is much less common. One reason is that societies want to encourage more students to continue to a higher level, and studying is already challenging without adding financial pressure to the pot. Another is that they want to separate curricular decision-making in higher education from student preference, at least to some extent. If a college depends primarily on tuition to make ends meet, it has to give greater weight to student demand when deciding what courses to offer, which programs to expand or eliminate, what kind of teaching to reward, and so on. Obviously there are arguments on both sides of this debate, but the US has swung very far in the direction of demand-driven revenues. My college, which is nominally public, now gets the majority of its funding from students, not the state legislature.
The Obama proposal is small, small, small. I guess we are entering Phase II of his presidency, where he shifts to Clintonoid minimalism, a fine mist of minute policy droplets that bathes the public with good PR even if no one actually gets wet.