Can Student Loans and the American Dream Coexist? | Crooked Media
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September 01, 2022
Positively Dreadful
Can Student Loans and the American Dream Coexist?

In This Episode

President Biden’s long awaited student-loan forgiveness plan has stirred up a fair amount of controversy. Many of the arguments were advanced in bad faith, some were above-board policy judgements, but none of them tackled the bigger question of whether America’s social contract with rising generations is fundamentally broken. The deal used to be that if you work hard and go to college, you’ll be rewarded with a lifetime of economic security. Biden did a good thing by making people who bought into that promise whole, but he also illuminated how a cornerstone of the American dream is failing us. Author and host of the Have You Heard podcast Jennifer Berkshire joins Brian to dive into the dreadful parts of the American education system, and discuss how we fix it.








Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful with me your host, Brian Beutler. So you probably heard that just over a week ago, as we record this, President Biden unveiled his long awaited plan to forgive a bunch of student loan debt. The forgiveness will go to people who earn less than $125,000 a year. It’s $10,000 for standard borrowers, $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. It caps payments at 5% of monthly income to make servicing remaining debt manageable. And it also goes a long way towards sparing people from the curse of compounding interest. It’s not as expansive a policy as it could have been, but it’s very big in the realm of half a trillion dollars. And because it’s big and because it’s by definition for people who attended college, it has stirred up a fair amount of controversy. Some of that controversy is sort of ginned up in bad faith by Biden’s political enemies. These are appeals to people’s jealousy, caricatures of the millions of people who will benefit as sort of self-indulgent gender studies students from Brooklyn who now work at Starbucks. Other aspects of the controversy are more above board, and these are mostly policy judgments. Is the forgiveness fiscally progressive? Is it economically efficient? Will it make inflation work? I think these are mostly fair questions, but I also think they’re kind of blinkered. They treat the decision in the abstract in terms of choices about how to move money around on a spreadsheet and ignore surrounding political and moral questions. Even if we stipulate to the most biting economic criticism of Biden’s plan, it doesn’t shed light on things like whether Biden would have been wise to break a clear as day campaign promise to forgive the debt. And it doesn’t answer the even bigger question of why Biden felt compelled to make the promise in the first place. That’s ultimately the question I care about, and the one we’ll dwell on today. What does it say about the state of the country, its social contract with its citizens, that this demand emerged for the government to give so many people at least a partial refund for their college tuition? If you knew nothing else about American society other than that Biden had made this decision, I think you’d assume it meant something had gone pretty wrong. If all you knew about America is that almost all children are taught at a young age that the key to a comfortable life is working hard and going to college, you might assume that the higher education system itself had failed institutionally if not necessarily as a series of discrete places where people go to learn, then as a way of helping them begin their careers. But the failure wouldn’t necessarily lie there either, right? A higher education system might be doing exactly what we want in terms of education and training. And the problem is we’re just graduating people out into a job market that can no longer sustain the other end of the promise. In that case, you might think the breakdown was mostly about the state of the economy right now. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve recast a social compact that is, work hard, go to college, and you’ll be rewarded as a kind of investment, buy into the system, and you’ll have economic security forever. That bargain sounds great, but it only makes sense as long as you never break the contract. But clearly the contract broke. The strong demand to forgive student loan debt wouldn’t have materialized if student loan debt hadn’t become an immense burden for a huge number of people. The stories about that are not hard to come by. And when people have asked me what I think about Biden’s debt forgiveness, this is what I’ve said. First, it was a campaign promise, and it’s proper and politically prudent to keep campaign promises. Second, it will help lots of people, even if it’s a category of people that Biden can only help because of a weird quirk in the law that only pertains to them. But it also said, I think it’s pretty alarming that this was necessary and we need some clarity on how this cornerstone promise of American life failed or what part of it failed so that it can be fixed if it’s fixable and we think it’s worth fixing. Biden did a good thing. But it’s also like the bell tolled for something. Did it toll for the individualized means by which we financed higher education? Did it toll for the product itself, for higher education per se? Or did it toll for something even bigger than that, like the achievability of the American dream on the other side of graduation? Or was it really just a one off thing, something that was briefly necessary, but hopefully never will be again. So there are a bunch of people who have a bunch of opinions on the structure of Biden’s debt forgiveness plan, the wisdom of it, the likely economic impact, etc., etc. A few of them have much to say about this ultimately moral question of how we should structure society and where we’ve strayed from our ideals. My guest this week is an exception. Jennifer Berkshire is an author and scholar who studies and reports on education. She’s host of the “Have You Heard” podcast. And she just generally spends a lot of time thinking about how the American education system fits into the grander scheme of society. And I think she can help us get a handle on where the challenges of fixing the problems that lead to debt forgiveness lie and how daunting it will be to actually fix them. So, Jennifer Berkshire, welcome to Positively Dreadful.


Jennifer Berkshire: Thank you so much for having me. And what an amazing way to frame this whole debate. I can’t wait to talk about it with you.


Brian Beutler: Awesome. Well, I can’t wait to talk about with you either. So there’s a there’s a very obvious generational element to the fight over student loan forgiveness. And we see it crop up over the years when ever the debate over it would become salient again. Invariably, some opponent of forgiving the debt would say people should pay what they owe, or some similar critique. And supporters would point out, you know, when you went to college 50 years ago or whatever, you paid $100 a semester. And it’s sort of a conversation ender because obviously things have changed dramatically since then. And anyone who paid $100 a semester today would not be in the market for debt forgiveness. So can you tell an abbreviated version of the story of how out-of-pocket cost per student exploded from the baby boom through the new millennium?


Jennifer Berkshire: Yeah. So, you know, I think of myself as a perfect example of this. I attended Eastern Illinois University in the nineties and it was the second cheapest school in the state. My sister went to the cheapest school, which was Southern. And you know, I graduated from college with no debt. And when I went back to visit my alma mater a few years ago to give a talk, you know what? The price was up to $19,000. This was a state school that attracted primarily rural kids and kids from the blue collar ring suburbs of Chicago. And that the tuition increase largely because the state responsibility over that time period receded. Right. That the the shift in paying for schools moved away from taxpayers and onto individuals as we began to redefine higher education from a public good to exactly what you were describing, you know, an individual good that you pay as much as you can in hopes of maximizing your return at the end. So as people probably, you know, they’ve heard a lot of the story about the not just the state withdrawing its support, but also ballooning costs for college affordability. And I think you’re exactly right that what that does is, it has created this big generational split where you hear people my age and older are kind of clucking at people who graduate or worse, don’t graduate with debt as as though it’s some kind of a personal failing on the part of those people. And I was profoundly affected by a terrific piece that a Boston based journalist named Neil Swidey wrote in 2016. He writes The Boston Globe magazine. And it was called The Student Debt Crisis Is Worse Than You Think. And he just looked at how unlikely it had become for somebody to emerge on the other end of this calculus and have their degree actually pay off. And that the far more common version was for people to be saddled not just with debt, but without degrees. And I think that’s where the people who are my age and older who who had the good fortune of coming out of a system when it was still more public, I think that’s where they really missed the boat here.


Brian Beutler: As just a basic baseline setting exercise. Are you aware of an apples to apples way to capture how the value of a college education, specifically as a means of achieving labor market power has has changed in terms of total cost and total benefit over the years. Like, just hypothetically, if in 1965, the total social cost of a college degree per student averaged “x”. College graduates back then made “y” way more money than average. How has that changed over time? Do we have a way to say, like to the critics who who paid $100 a semester like you got this immense value because society invested a lot of money in you. You had to pay a very little and you got all the economic rewards on the other end. Now the cost is way more, and we’re not doing that much better on the other side of graduation.


Jennifer Berkshire: So I think it would be amazing if we had a stat like that and I hope someone out there is is working on that. I haven’t seen it. I actually think what’s more useful is to take apart that statistic that is bandied about so much about the the relative worth of a college degree. And so we hear over and over again the statistic about how much more are people who graduate from college will earn in the course of their lifetime. And that’s really been used to propel this argument that that is you know, it’s kind of like the the perfect distillation of the case that Bill Clinton made back in the nineties, which is you earn what you learned. And so but what you find out when you actually break that statistic down is that the benefits accrue overwhelmingly to a few professions at the higher end. And that for the vast majority of people there, the tangible benefits end up being far harder to measure. It’s, you know, the calculus is less likely to pay off both because college has gotten more expensive, but also because, you know, wages have stagnated. And then the worst possible situation to be in is to not graduate. Right. But to still have the debt. And I think that one of the things that’s been so valuable about this debate is really sort of blowing up our sense of who goes to college and finally dispelling the kind of caricature that you were talking about, that, you know, this is really about kids who go to college and end up working as baristas. And actually, the you know, it’s this enormous group of people who attend college and are often, you know, they leave because they can’t afford it. And then they’re saddled with debt that follows them around forever. And for them, the the economic rewards of degree aren’t just intangible, but they end up being held back.


Brian Beutler: So I was struck by what you said about the the way college has evolved or devolved from something that was much more of a public good to something that’s much more individualized and risk oriented. And I think over that same progression, it has similarly evolved from being basically a series of academies for grooming the white male upper crust to being a much more public, diverse, widely attended set of institutions. But through all that, I kind of feel like the the cultural meaning of higher education, like our commonly held idea of why higher education is important hasn’t changed all that much. Like, whether we’re talking 50 years ago or 25 years ago or now, kids have been told a pretty consistent story about what college is and why it’s something important to work towards. Does that make sense?


Jennifer Berkshire: Yeah, but I think that what people who are outside of the educational realm may miss is just the intensity of that narrative and how it really picked up steam during the Obama years that the Obama folks really doubled down on this notion that the way we were going to be economically competitive as a nation and the way we were going to lift kids out of poverty was to put everyone on a path to college. And so if you go into an urban school and especially an urban charter school, which has been started and expanded and funded in order to increase college going rates, the message is absolutely relentless that you are going to college. And I think like to me, the moment where this really goes off the rails is towards the very end of Rahm Emanuel’s term. Remember when he was mayor of Chicago and he announces this policy that if you are a student in the Chicago public schools, you’re not going to be able to graduate unless you have a college offer in your hand and you have some other options, too, right. You can show that the military is going to accept you or that you’ve been accepted into a trade school. And, you know, a lot of the area community colleges spoke up and said, well, well, wait a second, kids from the Chicago Public Schools already, you know, like we already accept them. What do you mean by this? And what he really meant was that they were redefining college, that in order to your path to success doesn’t just mean going to a community college, it means going somewhere further away, somewhere more expensive, right. Like that was the mark of a winner. And so you set in motion this dynamic that is really just like tailor made to then saddle kids with debt. And I watched all of this playing out. I get worried whenever I hear policymakers of all different stripes singing from the same playbook and that anyone who asks questions kind of being dismissed as a hater. And this was exactly the case with the Obama administration’s relentless push for college for all. And I think in many ways that set the stage for what the Biden administration has done, which is not just forgiving debt, but also acknowledging that an entire sort of policy direction didn’t work.


Brian Beutler: Yeah, I mean, the Emanuel policy, it’s obviously extremely onerous and then just sort of a way of bullying kids into taking on a bunch of debt without knowing whether they’d be able to pay it off. But the you know, the sort of prior, you know, what I grew up in when somebody else was mayor of Chicago, I grew up in inland California. I went to high school in the nineties, and the essentialness of going to college was impressed upon me from a from a very young age by my parents and teachers. I heard endlessly about our good fortune to have high quality public schools in the state. But I’m pretty sure if we’d been from almost anywhere else in the country at the exact same period of time in the mid-nineties, I would have gotten a similar message. And movies I’ve seen from every era about college portrayed college as a socially and professionally formative place. College skeptics are dumb jocks or bad guys, and I think that’s still mostly the case that the message people are hearing maybe outside of Rahm Emanuel is the same basic, I think propaganda is too mean of a term, but the same basic moral proposition and values proposition. Going to college is good for you. And also it’s going to be the best thing you can do for yourself if you want to have a stable life as an adult. And I’m not sure if that promise was ever good or bad or right or wrong. It was certainly more accurate, I think, before the last decade or so. But is it a good thing that in America that’s something that we tell people starting at age five, six, seven years old.


Jennifer Berkshire: The problem is not the message. The problem is the kind of, you know, how ominous it is that, you know what, like what’s going to happen to you if you don’t go to college? And one thing that really changes, like really reaches sort of a peak during the Obama era, is this message that the jobs of the future are all going to require post-secondary credentials? And so this was always kind of weird because you’ve probably seen the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts about the jobs that are going to be plentiful in the future. And they are jobs like home health aide right, the like the jobs of the future are actually low paying and and do not require a college degree. And so this was you know, there’s always been a little bit of kind of fancy dancing around the the economic forecasting with respect to this. But I think what, you know, like what’s really changed from the time that you and I were in school was that there wasn’t even if the messaging was the same as far as encouraging us to go, there wasn’t the same sense that if you didn’t go to college, there was nothing there for you, right? Like there were there were still jobs you could walk into. There were still the attacks on unions had really only just started. And so the stakes get the stakes get raised higher and higher. And then that basically ends up being used to justify the tremendous amounts of debt which then end up making college, you know, a less certain pay off. But I really do think that it’s worth is it worth spending some time digging into the economic case that’s been made for college? Because it’s actually it’s actually very flimsy and it’s far more ideological than you might think. Just because we are, this is the water we swim in, right? Like we’ve never heard anything else but that going to college is the right thing to do, the smart thing to do, and that it’ll pay off.


Brian Beutler: And I think that’s an important part of the story of why so many people who graduated college more recently, people who had the misfortune of graduating into the Great Recession or any time in the sort of last decade afterward feel so betrayed. Right. It’s like you all told me to go that it would be good for me on the other side and ruinous for me if I didn’t do it. And you told me that that, you know, dichotomy that stark black and white picture of my future was made it worth taking on a bunch of debt to do it. But that was all a bill of goods. There aren’t a bunch of good job options that, you know, that I find rewarding, or at least satisfying in some way, and also will allow me to pay off the debt in a reasonable amount of time. They don’t cover much more than the cost of housing and the debt service. And so I can’t have a family. And so multiply that by many millions of people. And that’s a lot of pissed off people there.


Jennifer Berkshire: I think you’re so right. Ron Lieber had this great piece for The Times called No Students Don’t Need Debt Forgiveness. They need an apology. Right. Because they really like that that aggrieved generation you’re talking about really was sold a bill of goods. And I think that, you know, it’s the amazing part of this story is seeing, you know, this move from a basically a fringe activist issue to one that starts to move people closer to the center and ultimately results in a policy shift. But the question is, what happens now? Like, what are we you know, what happens with our entire policy infrastructure and the ideological story we tell ourselves involves higher education. And so what, you know, like what is going to happen now, as far as, you know, are we just forgiving the debt of a single generation? Are we rethinking the whole theory of change? And that’s what I’m going to be paying attention to, because I don’t think anyone really has an answer for that.


Brian Beutler: I want to get to these questions like, how what do you do about college affordability going forward so that there isn’t like the need for like debt forgiveness jubilee every decade or so and also whether we need to sort of change the way we talk to young people starting at a young age about what college is, who it’s for. Is it for everyone? Is it worth it for, you know, career prospects or self-enrichment or whatever else. I kind of want to bore into the question of of what higher education is like, the tension between our cultural conception of college as a place people go to get a toehold on the professional ladder and our simultaneous conception of college as a place people go to learn history and how to reason and become erudite for for the sake of their own flourishing. Because those ideas are intention, I think.


Jennifer Berkshire: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. And, you know, like I’ve taught in all kinds of places and yesterday I taught my first seminar at Yale and, you know, like, it’s it’s just amazing, right, to, like, be in a place where students are given the time and the freedom to just, you know, they’re pursuing their own interests and exploring history. And, you know, even though the stakes are high for these students as well, it to me, it felt a little bit like we could forget all of that as we were in our seminar room for an hour and 40 minutes. But I also, you know, I teach in sort of working class commuter schools, too, where kids are going to college because they’ve been told that, you know, like if you’re going to learn a skill, that’s where you go now. So they’re they’re going to college to study something like criminal justice. And for, you know, for them, they’re not given the luxury of time to explore, you know, their own interests because because higher education has been defined in a strictly vocational term. And I think we really have to wrestle with that, that we’re you know, we use the we use the same stirring language to make the case for why everyone should go to college. And it’s really important to acknowledge that in the past, you know, when we say college isn’t right for everyone, it always turns out to be the same disadvantaged groups of people—


Brian Beutler: Right.


Jennifer Berkshire: —that it isn’t right for right. And so we don’t want to walk back into that trap. But on the other hand, you know, like I really I’m so inspired by stories where somebody goes to see a community college because they think, you know, they’re pursuing some very sort of vocational opportunity and then they end up falling in love with learning. They discover anthropology and their whole their horizon opens up. So, you know, I am I have a real soft spot for those sorts of stories. But we do we need to be cautious about falling back into that trap, of saying that that, you know, college is only right for some kids and that certain college is only right for some kids because, you know, it’s you know, it inevitably it ends up being the you know, the elites. They’ll always get the seminar table. They’ll always get the great library and the individual attention.


Brian Beutler: Is there, I mean, so is there is there a way to structure a higher education system so that college is still, for, accessible to everyone without it regressing backwards toward it being really only for elites and also without it being this sort of high stakes do or die hurdle that people feel like they have to jump if they’re going to be able to make enough money to live a comfortable life. Like well, like what does that what does that look like?


Jennifer Berkshire: So. Yes, yes to both of those things. First of all, fund it robustly at every level, whether we’re talking about community colleges or state universities. They have to be you know, if you look at what’s happened, thinking about a state like where I live in Massachusetts as the state responsibility for funding higher ed has basically, you know, diminished over the years. Those schools need kids who can pay full freight. And so that means trying to attract kids from out of state, which means fewer opportunities for for kids who live in Massachusetts, especially working class rural kids and urban kids who have less ability to pay. And so the you know, the whole system ends up getting markedly less fair. We could really change that if if states, you know, re-upped their commitment to public education and and made it much more like a public good the way we still fingers crossed treat K-12 schools. And the other thing is, you know, we’ve got to lower the stakes around what higher education has become. This, you know, this sense that parents have, that, you know, if that getting their kids into an elite institution is a life or death matter that has created so many just so many problems, and it really like you can go back and see how the Democrats sort of made this bed. By embracing that you earn what you learn philosophy. And so, you know, moving away, rejecting any idea of of economic redistribution, weakening unions, often for, quote “the right reasons”, and then putting all the chips in the higher ed basket. And so the stakes just get higher and higher. And if you have ever hung around with parents who are who are, you know, spending all their time thinking about how their kids, how to get their kids into an elite institution, it is it is just insane. Like it is it is such a world away from just thinking through, you know, like, what, where where is my child going to learn the most? Where are they going to be the happiest? What’s going to be the most rewarding? Instead, it’s this sort of zero zero sum competition among elites that’s just incredibly destructive.


Brian Beutler: I really like the picture you painted of what it might look like to reform higher ed in a way that was socially more socially beneficial than it is now. My my concern is about the political viability of it generally. Right? Like, is it conceivable that we could restructure higher and higher education as something inherently enriching, affordable and available to people from all walks of life, but that we in no way expect will pay for itself in terms of an increase in expected lifetime earnings. Right. That, I guess, it sort of ties back into what I was saying about academia being at war with itself, because it conceives of itself the way, you know, you were just describing it, where you are now as this equalizing institution, an engine for intellectual flourishing. People just go and they tinker and they figure out what they like. It lifts poor people from poor families with little educational attainment into the into the middle class and the upper class. At the same time, it’s also a credentialing hub for the already affluent. And and this is what I mean by the political difficulty of of restructuring. If it stopped being that if we detached from college, this sort of core output, that we, you know, this will make your years 22, to, to, when y ou die remunerative and and enriching. They would destroy it.


Jennifer Berkshire: I think I mean, you you put your finger right on it, right? Like like that’s it’s it’s really it just shows you how how difficult this is going to be. And then the other factor in the red state blue state divide. And so you have this increasing hostility towards higher education period on the part of Republicans. And that’s something that’s really new. We haven’t seen that before. You know, if you go back to sort of the Rush Limbaugh era, they would you know, they would go after particular kinds of institutions and majors. But now we’re hearing we’re hearing Republican politicians. I’m thinking of somebody like a Ron DeSantis, embrace, almost kind of an extreme vocationalism that anything you do is better than college. And that that kind of view is going to be used, you know, not just to justify the current poor state of investment in schools, but to actually argue for further de-funding. And so I think that we’re in a lot of states. We’re going to be moving towards an even more precarious future. And then, you know, like in the blue states, we’re going to see exactly that sort of divide that you were identifying. That effort to redefine higher education as a public good is going to be met with the fury of affluent parents who see any attempt to make the system more fair as something that’s going to undercut the prospects of their kids. And, you know, it’s going to look like the most explosive of the culture war fights that we’re seeing now around K-12, where, you know, you end up with this weird alliance of populist, conservative populists who are angry at elites and then affluent parents who see things like school district equity as a threat to their own kids prospects. So, yes, I think you’re totally right. Not only not only are we entering a dangerous time, but in a lot of places, I think things are going to continue to get worse.


Brian Beutler: Yeah, I mean I mean, we saw in the in the last decade when Republicans took over like Wisconsin and North Carolina, they started doing what now Ron DeSantis sort of wears as a badge of honor. They started attacking the excellent public universities in their state. And, you know, there’s still good schools, but but they were degraded by Republicans using them as sort of like a culture war foil and like a reservoir of money to to kind of extract and spend on other things. You know, the stipulating that avoiding a situation where in red states they fully degrade higher education. And in blue states, you set up the sort of classish divide that kind of resembles fights over affirmative action and and, you know, sort of other contentious issues if we’re going to avoid that and migrate towards something like the vision you outlined. Can you talk a little bit about how mechanically we get there? Because I heard in what you described both a policy challenge like, people in Congress or in state legislatures are going to have to pass bills that change how we fund schools and how curriculum is set or something. And separately, a cultural change about how we the collective, we talk about higher education. And I think it would be helpful if people had a clearer sense of how you get from step one to the promised land.


Jennifer Berkshire: So that is not an easy thing to answer.


Brian Beutler: [laugh] I apologize.


Jennifer Berkshire: But I think, you know, like one piece of it is just really calling out the sort of Republicans hostility to higher education. And it’s interesting, you know, you can look at states like Indiana where there has been a profound shift away. You know, rich people don’t want to have to pay for any public goods, whether it’s whether it’s higher ed or K-12. And so you can actually watch as Indiana’s educational attainment starts to drop. And that means it means fewer kids going to college, but it means that it’s much harder for them to lure employers to Indiana. And it means the kinds of employers they’re able to get are bad. And so I think, you know, being much more like really calling that out, showing what it looks like. And because, you know, their goal is to lure us into endless debate about University of Idaho’s gender studies program. Right. Like just, you know, culture war all day long. But really, you know, lay out the consequences of what it’s meant to de-fund public higher education. And then I think that the other thing and, you know, in in in blue states, I think anything that we can do to lower the stakes around around college admittance is really important. And so a lot of that’s going to be it’s going to mean emphasizing things that don’t have anything to do with college. It’s going to mean making non-college jobs better. It’s going to mean the, you know, continued expansion, rebuilding the labor movement. Right. Because that’s you know, we’re this we’re living through this this intense moment because the rest of the economy got so bad. And I think that what really what really in some ways woke people up and and and sort of took the wind out of the sails of the college or nothing crowd is to see what a tight labor market actually looks like and how much more leverage workers have. And so we have to figure out ways to make that more sustainable so that everything around higher ed isn’t as explosive. And I know that you you know, you want specific policy fixes, but, you know, I really feel like the problems are bigger than that and that, you know, as long as long as you as long as you try to make these sort of kind of Band-Aids around access right, like Democrats love to talk about access. But that’s, you know, the real the real problem is inequality. And as long as we’re as unequal as we are, anything we try to do around, quote  “access” is just basically a bomb waiting to go off.


Brian Beutler: Yeah. The economic piece of this is is it makes it very difficult, I think, to to reach firm conclusions about where to go next. Right. Because if you imagine that there had been no Great Recession, no financial crisis, then it’s really unclear. Like, would there have been a college debt crisis at all? And would we would we be having this conversation today or would we just say, you know, college is now more expensive than it was when the last generation went, but not crazily so and not and we didn’t have a big explosion in people going to school because the economy because, you know, the job market wasn’t a good alternative for them.


Jennifer Berkshire: You know, I think that that’s I think that’s such a good question because if you read Will Bunch’s new book after after the Ivory Tower Falls and I cannot recommend it highly enough that the Great Recession is really the moment where he argues that you you see, what had already been a divide just deepened and become intractable, that, you know, like people’s experience of the Great Recession and the way that it caused resentment to fester and that the you know, the resentment you have, you know, the kids who feel burdened and like their future has been foreclosed upon, but also people who feel looked down upon and like they’ve been denied educational opportunity. And so when you put all that together, you’re left with this really explosive mix. But it does you know, it really makes you wonder what what would things look like had it not been for the Great Recession and not just in terms of the kids who ended up feeling so, who really lost faith in in that part of the the kind of American dream, but also, you know, in the like the kind of populist resentment that has has come to define our politics. Would we have you know, would we have less of that? And would it be less focused on education?


Brian Beutler: Yeah. I mean, I guess another way to ask the question is like there’s there’s data showing that enrollment and debt and tuition peaked actually about a decade ago. And are we, you know, by happenstance, evolving in a direction where five years from now, ten years from now, the people who are entering and graduating from college now will actually think, yeah, you know, this was this was a good deal for me. We won’t have a new epidemic of college debt being a crushing burden for millions of people. And then we’ll look back and say, this was really a perfect storm, just a, you know, a collision of a bunch of trends all at once. The the explosion of the millennial generation coinciding with them, becoming an adult, then becoming adults, coinciding with the financial crisis. And, of course, that created an immense decade long fallout that we’re still recovering from, but won’t necessarily be with us in the future if we’re not so unlucky again.


Jennifer Berkshire: Yeah. I mean, that like that really is sort of the billion dollar question, right? Because, you know, now, like, once again, we’re we’re in a moment that’s defined by all these different trends, some of which are very ominous. And so if you look at, for example, at the havoc that that the pandemic has, you know, the kind of catastrophic impact that that’s had on college enrollment. So we’re going to see a big decline for that reason. And then, you know, I think the other thing that that, you know, people probably know about but may not be aware of, the severity is just we’re also at the we’re seeing a big demographic dip. Right. There are many fewer college kids. And so that means that there are we’re going to see a lot of colleges going belly up. We’ve already seen that. And. I think, you know, I live in a place where there are tons and tons of small private colleges. And one of the things you learn when you start to dig beneath the surface is how dependent they have been on student debt. You know, we’re very used to sort of condemning the the for profit institutions that have been so horrible. But, you know, there is a lot of rot in the system. There are a lot of schools that are completely dependent on on loading kids up with debt and and convincing them that this, you know, their future depends on on attending school like Pine Manor outside of Boston, which has since closed. And so I think that, you know, the in some way, even though it’s impossible to predict how all these trends are going to shake out the, you know, the demographic adjustment, the the fallout from the pandemic, some of the rot that ends up being gotten rid of, that’s going to be for good.


Brian Beutler: Yeah. You call it the billion dollar question. It might, it might be the trillion dollar question. The the I think the the biggest unknown is will legislators at the federal and state level having you know, now that the the forgiveness part is done step in and and do anything to try to make the next decade or the next generation even like not have such high stakes wrapped up in in the college question. But I think it’s also quite possible because it’s the United States and doing things is ridiculously hard here, that Congress will literally do nothing. Yeah. Either to bring the unit cost of college down or subsidize it further or something. And so what happens if they do nothing? And do you think that there will have to be another forgiveness several years down the line if the policy doesn’t change?


Jennifer Berkshire: It is a really interesting question. And I you know, you see pundits sort of weighing in like, well, now that Biden has, you know, like, ah, like bowed to the pressure of the progressive flank of the Democratic Party. Now he should pivot to the center and work, you know, convene a bipartisan body to work on college affordability. And you can probably imagine who I’m channeling. And, you know, I just don’t I don’t think the politics are amenable for that at all, that the the the right is increasingly hostile to higher education, period. But the populist new right in particular. Right. They’re the most interested in using the levers of the state to to kind of enforce a particular kind of morality. So, you know, they’re going to be going all in. They’re going to be following that Ron DeSantis model in Florida, which is basically demanding kind of ideal ideological fealty from, you know, state employees in the university system. And so the you know, the idea that DeSantis would convene a bipartisan group of lawmakers to talk about college affordability seems really, really preposterous. But on the other hand, I mean, you’re absolutely right that like, if this just turns out to be something that made the lives of a generation better without without dealing with the structural issues that caused the problem in the first place, you know what a wasted opportunity. Right. And so so I am you know, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that this this opens the door to start wrestling with the bigger issues that led to this in the first place. But politically, I feel, you know, I’m really concerned about the the red state blue state divide and the dangerous anti-education direction that a lot of the GOP rhetoric seems to be heading in right now.


Brian Beutler: Right. I mean, it’s interesting what you say the you know, the GOP culture war, everything means that any substantive, thoughtful package of higher education reforms that any group of politicians, lawmakers, public intellectuals come up with will end up being partisan and right. Like Biden could convene some former Republican education, you know, education committee chair and some Democratic counterpart. And they could come up with a bipartisan package of ideas about how to make college more affordable, you know, broader buy in, etc., etc.. Separately, Democrats could just do it on their own. Either way, what you come up with on the other side is a legislative package that the actual Republicans serving in Congress will all oppose because they’re at culture war with universities.


Jennifer Berkshire: Exactly. And you might, you know, like you will see to the extent that there are still moderate Republicans left at the state level, you will see them pushing for something like, you know, more free college, community college. Right. Like that’s not. There are some interesting state level experiments still happening, but even like even those seem, I think like they’re given the the the nature of the culture wars and the the just sort of anti-democratic thrust of the politics on the right. Right now, those experiments seem like they’re they’re likely to run out of steam or you’re not going to see them spreading all over the place.


Brian Beutler: So I mean [sigh] if Democrats were to just tackle this on their own, try to beat Republicans in the culture war over education and also reform education substantively. Is there a way to do that? That I mean, I feel like there’s a big risk that you end up having one political party identify itself with the ivory tower so much that they they missed the mark. They don’t capture the center. And so the the culture warriors on the right ultimately win separately. The, you know, or alternatively, they get the they get the center. But that, I think, probably entails reminding people that college graduates are not either Starbucks baristas or poetry professors at Harvard, but they’re like nurses and teachers and important members of the community. But then you’re back into sort of reifying college as a vocational thing. So it seems like a very tricky act of politics to pull off to do reform that’s partisan and also popular. But that leaves us with a better sort of social conception of what college is, why it exists, what it’s for, who should go under what circumstances, etc..


Jennifer Berkshire: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. I mean, look at what is happening with K-12 right now and the extent to which Republicans are quite successfully redefining our entire public K-12 system as basically like a Democratic operation and how you know, how. Look at what’s happened to the trust level that Republicans have for public education. You know, it looks like their the track looks a lot like state funding of higher ed, right? Like it just looks like a ski slope. And then that opens the door for, you know, all these policy moves that have not historically had popular support. You know, things like private school vouchers and all sorts of privatization. But, yes, I think that’s exactly it. Like it there’s a huge risk in having higher ed defined solely in in partisan terms. And given the education polarization within the party system, you can already see see where that’s where that’s leading. Right. So I think I think that’s really bad. But, you know, I think what’s been so interesting about this conversation is that all we’ve succeeded in doing is just showing how many different problems there are and how intractable they are.  [laughter]


Brian Beutler: Yeah, that’s that’s always the, you know, on a show like this. It’s like, you know, you want to help people understand the problem and understand what a solution might look like. But sometimes it’s really hard to bundle it all together in a way that it’s like, okay, there’s something to work towards. It’s concrete and easy to understand. Like, this is one of those situations where the range of of changes that might need to be make is so vast.


Jennifer Berkshire: It’s really true. And I you mentioned a little while ago Wisconsin and how, you know, when when Scott Walker came in and and he was really, you know, like he was on the the leading edge of this effort to use this the public higher ed system as fodder for culture war. But something really interesting happened in Wisconsin. You know, they have this this extensive network of of public universities throughout the state. Like, you know, it seems like virtually every community has some sort of public higher ed institution. And and when when they would try to cut those way back and, you know, announced that, say, you know, University of Wisconsin at Whitewater was no longer going to have a department of English and a department of history. Local people rose up and, you know, I take that as a really encouraging sign that that you don’t like people really do. You know, they they want their they want their kids to have opportunities and that we shouldn’t let the Republicans get away with sort of culture warring around this and and making it seem as though somehow their supporters want less for their kids. We should take advantage of the fact that that that, you know, that’s that’s that’s not typically what what what people want. So, you know, I try to be glass half full about this stuff and I am really like I’m really pleased at the with the Biden policy on this. But we do we absolutely have a lot of work left to do.


Brian Beutler: Yeah. I take your point that, you know, if Republicans win, they’ll probably go too far in their in their culture, war on higher education, and it’ll ignite a backlash. That will set things on a better course. But I think the ideal scenario is one where they don’t get to take that first crack at it in the first place. And I guess this this is sort of goes back to the the the question mark about what comes after the debt forgiveness side of tackling the college affordability crisis, which is, I think, part of the reason people were were sort of surprised or taken aback by by this kind of sense of like, whoa, like, you can just do that right out of nowhere because it’s not alien to people that when some part of our social compact breaks down, Congress gets together and, you know, makes people who who were taken advantage of whole and reforms things so that it doesn’t happen again. Right. Like we just saw a sort of small scale version of this when Congress passed a bill for veterans who are sick because they live near toxic burn pits. Right. That was, you know, not in the brochures. When people enlisted in the military, they got they were they were badly harmed by it. So they don’t do that anymore. And separately, Congress amended the law so that so that veterans can get health care for the specific conditions they have. Right. Like that’s that’s how it normally works. And I think the, you know, apply that to the to the student loan crisis and the college affordability crisis. You would think that that that would all happen together as sort of one package. But Republicans are not invested in it at all. So it’s happening in a sort of piecemeal way. So, I mean, what say like the optimistic story, you can tell how you hope it goes. Now that part one is done and now it’s like an open question will Congress do anything? And if so, what will they do? What would you like to see Congress do in the next year to five years? That would set us on a course that. Was healthier than the one we’ve been on for the past, say, 15 years.


Jennifer Berkshire: So the I’m going to disappoint you by not really having an answer to the Congress part of this. But I’m really hoping that this ends up being sort of a shock to the system. And it reinvigorates a conversation about higher education as a public good. Right. If we are saying to kids, you have to go. It makes no sense at all that your K-12 education is funded for by taxpayers. But the day after that, it’s all over and it’s on you, right? Like this is this is where we start to rethink that. And the you know, of course, the the danger is what I spend most of my time writing about these days is the threats to K-12 that the right actually wants our K-12 system to look like higher ed rate, that the burden is on the individual family to decide how much they’re willing to pay for it, and then to take the money and use it for whatever they want. Right. Like that. You spend it on religious education, you sent you spend it on on home schooling. So on the one hand, you know, I think it would be great if there were like a congressional package that could that could fix start to fix this stuff. But I am really worried that we are moving in the opposite direction and that we are going to see a lot of states begin to take steps to dismantle their public education systems in the near future in not just higher ed, but their K-12 systems. So so worry about that.


Brian Beutler: [laugh] Well, that’s a topic for a different episode of Positively Dreadful that will probably try to have you back on in the future to talk through.


Jennifer Berkshire: I thought I would really end with the dreadful. I really hit the dreadful note there.


Brian Beutler: Yeah, I was going I was going for a positively ending. But but we’ll stick with this one. Jennifer Brookshire, thank you for spending so much time with us.


Jennifer Berkshire: Thanks so much for having me. [music break]


Brian Beutler: I know we ended on a kind of pessimistic note there, but I actually think the bigger picture is not so daunting. So long as we choose not to limit our thinking about higher education and higher education reform to financing and pedagogy and fighting to create a national consensus around the value of college. I was raised on the higher education gospel. It was never really a question that I’d go to college. I was lucky in that I didn’t have to pay for my own schooling. But if I tried to imagine what it would have been like if college had been presented to me as one option, but one that I’d have to pay for, then my decision making would have turned on a whole host of considerations that I never entertained because college was a foregone conclusion. So I’d have to ask myself what jobs will be available to me if I don’t go? If I do go? How much debt will I be in? Is that debt burden justified by the fun and parties and also the larger set of professional prospects that I’d unlock by graduating? I think ultimately I would have done the same thing I did and hope for the best, but it probably would have depended on how decent the non four year college options were at that time. And so ultimately the best path to higher ed reform is as much in changing the cost burden, I think, as in diversifying the set of options young adults have and thus reducing the stakes of the yes or no. Up or down, black or white decision that so many high school kids and their parents have to make. A revitalized labor movement is, in effect, higher education reform. A full employment economy is also higher education reform. If things like that are dependably in place, then college can be for everyone from privileged kids who want to read Proust all day, to poor kids who want to break the glass ceiling in their families, to somewhat older adults who didn’t go to college straight out of high school but also weren’t spinning their wheels for years as a result of opting out at first. It can be for all those people and everyone in between. And it can be that without anyone having to be told that this one decision is the most important one they’ll ever make. Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez and our producer is Olivia Martinez. Veronica Simonetti mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.