Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Paradoxically Perfect Millennial as a Cover for Republicans' Attacks on Higher Education

by Neil H. Buchanan

Virtually nobody talks about how responsible and well behaved millennials are, not even millennials themselves. As with all younger generations, there are complaints from oldsters like me (but not including me) about how shallow and pampered "kids today" can be.  Why can't they be like we were ... perfect in every way?

Even so, there is a subset of millennials who have suddenly become the poster children for the argument not to do anything about student debt and high tuition costs.  As I noted in my most recent Verdict column last week, there is a new refrain from those who are looking for an excuse not to have the government fix the mess that higher education financing has become in the last generation, which is that some young people did it right, and it would be unfair to those responsible young heroes to make it easier for anyone else.

This is, of course, a shamelessly opportunistic argument on the part of the Republicans, who think that subsidized higher education is just another form of (cue the scary music) socialism.  They could not care less about poor kids who somehow manage to work three jobs while going to school and graduating -- in part because almost no such people exist.  The reality is that college is now so out of reach (due in large part to Republicans' budget cutting at the state and federal levels) that fewer and fewer kids from modest beginnings can finish college.

But what of the few -- and for all we know, it might be only one hardy soul -- who "did everything right" and got through college without debt (and without any help from anyone else, i.e., they did what was literally impossible by "pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps")?  Should our admiration for such sacrifices make us decide to do nothing about those who were not able to reach that happy result?  Should we decide not to adopt a new program that would deliver better results?

Referring to those few people who (much like the perfect millennials) somehow manage to get through a medical crisis without being driven into bankruptcy, I noted in my Verdict column that they might respond to a new program that makes it easier for people in the future to deal with these financial challenges: "Gee, I wish this new program had existed back then.”

And that is understandable.  I argued that that is not, however, an excuse to do nothing now, because "that is simply how change works. Using it as an excuse to do nothing elevates individual pique and resentment above social and economic progress."  Why would someone say, "No, you can't make anyone's life better than mine was," rather than, "Wow, it's so great that no one will have to go through what I went through ever again"?

This kind of resentment (rather than joy) when others face more pleasant choices seems to run deep in the human psyche.  As the fifth of five children, I spent much of my childhood listening to my siblings complain bitterly that I was getting things that they never got!  "When I was Neil's age, I had to go to bed at 8.  Why does he get to go to bed at 8:30.  It's not fair!"  Any parent with more than one child can surely relate.

It would be nice if that kind of petty jealousy ended with the onset of adulthood, but sometimes it does not.  I recall reading my first issue of the ABA Journal about twenty years ago, where I came across an article about one of the many tri-state areas in the country (in this case, northeastern Oregon, southeastern Washington, and western Idaho).  The article discussed a plan to allow lawyers to practice across state lines through a streamlined process that radically improved on the onerous requirements that had existed up until that point.

Progress, right?  Great news that the legal establishment managed to get over itself and do something to reduce the wasted time and money that cross-jurisdictional practice presents, right?  Not for everyone.  To this day (even though I long ago lost the copy of the article that I tore out of the magazine), I remember one comment from an established practitioner, who was very much against the change: "I suffered.  Others should, too."

Should others suffer?  One could certainly argue that there is something positive about the old way, but the costs of the old way would almost certainly swamp any such benefits.

The professor in my first econometrics course in college forced us to do all of the computations for our first multiple regression analysis by hand (no computers, not even any calculators), just to impress upon us that there is a lot of number crunching involved.  But he did that once, just to make a point.  He did not say that we had to suffer as those without calculators and computers had suffered.

So why should we worry that the people who had to walk ten miles (uphill in both directions) to and from school through blizzards in May had a harder time of it than those who were born later?  What is it about progress that brings out some people's resentment and jealousy?

In my research on intergenerational justice, I have found almost universally that people will say some version of the following: "I just want my kids to have it better than I had it."  But then when that actually happens, somehow it is a reason to complain about the kids.  I do not claim to have an explanation, but I do find it interesting that people are able to be so internally inconsistent in their thinking.

Perhaps, however, there is an aspect of this that deserves further attention.  The argument for addressing the crisis of higher education expenses, after all, is not merely a prospective plan to make college affordable again for future students.  People like Senator Bernie Sanders want to wipe away the debts that current and former students have already built up.  Does that change things?

From the standpoint of the actual problem that we want to solve, nothing at all changes.  If we think that people should be able (as many people in previous generations were able) to get a college degree without ending up heavily in debt, then we would certainly want to help the people who are currently being dragged down by a system that keeps them in perpetual peonage.

But the few-to-none perfect millennials who did not end up in debt might say that they made sacrifices in reliance on the rules as they existed at the time.  Why should others be allowed, ex post, to cancel the debt that they ran up while the perfect millennials so diligently did the right things?  It is not the next generation or even younger peers that we are talking about, but contemporaries.

So what?  People learn of different opportunities all the time, and we deal with those consequences as they come.  Yes, it might be frustrating to learn that there was an easier or cheaper way to do something that helped others but will not help me, but FOMO (fear of missing out) is not a reason to refuse to adopt a sensible policy.

Again, this argument is in a very real sense a sideshow.  Republicans are not valiantly fighting for the rights of some people not to find out after the fact that they could have done things differently.  They are continuing to attack higher education (actually, all levels of education), making college less unaffordable for all but the children of the privileged.  Attempting to shame debt-burdened people into thinking that they did something wrong is classic victim-blaming.  But blaming the victims, too, is completely on-brand for the Republicans.


Michael C. Dorf said...

Isn't the more challenging comparison not someone who paid down or didn't accumulate student debt and is thus reasonably well off, but someone who chose to forgo college and has been economically disadvantaged as a result? Let's compare a college grad earning $60,000 in annual salary with college debt of $100,000 to a high school grad earning $40,000. (These numbers are pretty typical: https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2018/data-on-display/education-pays.htm .) If the college grad takes 20 years to pay off her student loans at 5% interest, she will spend about $8,000 per year on debt service, but that still leaves her netting substantially more ($52k versus $40k) than the high school grad; yet student debt forgiveness provides a benefit to the more well off rather than the less well off person, even though they both find themselves where they are now because of the high cost of college. I'm not saying the solution is to do nothing, but I do think there is a genuine issue of equity here (albeit one that Republicans and others are using opportunistically).

CEP said...

Of course, there are two groups of kids who can successfully emerge without any (or far less, anyway) college debt:

Trust-fund kids, or others in similar circumstances who have someone else write a check for college costs (not just tuition, either; the formulas for determining college cost build in substantial family contributions without telling anyone), who are disproportionately white and attached to the red party; and

ROTC and similar programs... which have the same ultimate characteristics. (N.B. I was one of these, despite being to the left of blue, and later taught in one.)

So it's not just about the suffering; it's about the demographics of those who don't, which are disproportionately "Real 'Murikans."

Greg said...

I have no problem with making college cheaper for younger generations, I'm all for it. This is why I voted to make my neighborhood in-district for the local community college and pay the resulting taxes, despite neither me nor my children planning to attend there.

However, I think plans that involve paying off existing college loans do make me question things. For instance, I have a child in college. Should I ensure that when that child graduates they have a significant amount of debt, in order to hedge my bets that the government will eventually forgive that debt, in effect awarding me thousands of dollars in exchange for choosing not to pay for my child's education? This is my problem with broad debt relief programs, they incentivize bad behavior. If I am able to pay for (or heavily subsidize) my child's education, the government should incentivize me to do so. The solution to this is probably some kind of means-tested program, rather than paying off student debt for everyone who attended college.

Prof. Dorf also makes a very good point that the students who chose not to go to college because they couldn't afford it are even more affected than the ones who took on debt in order to improve their earning potential. Shouldn't this group be compensated before those who took on debt to attend college?