An Interview with Joy Pullman: Presiding by Fiat or Procrastination?

Oct 26, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

  1. Joy, can you first tell us about you and what exactly you do ?

I’m the managing editor of School Reform News, a think-tank news site, and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

  1. Apparently, our illustrious President has decided by executive order to eliminate some student loans- am I off on this?

The president hasn’t yet signed that executive order, but he has said he will sign one with provisions that, as you say, will have the effects of making taxpayers cosign on student loans, and inevitably pay many of them completely.

  1. Joy, you and I are taxpayers, and apparently we are paying the college tuition of some students who may not make it through college. Your thoughts?

We’re already paying the college tuition of students who will not make it through college, since Pell Grants, for example, are in no way tied to graduation or student aptitude and the program administrators have steadfastly refused to publish graduation rates of recipients. We’re already paying college tuition for students who won’t graduate by sponsoring federal loans and federal higher education subsidies. So, paying college tuition for dropouts is by no means a new thing for federal higher education policy–but the president’s plan will definitely increase taxpayer exposure to risk just as federal policies did the same with home mortgages. And we all know the result from that.

  1. What do our elected officials in Congress seem to say about this?

I haven’t heard much Congressional reaction yet, but Congress did grant the president the power, in 2009, to put the Treasury on the hook for executive orders like this, so they should have seen this coming. Both parties have been angry at similar actions for things like No Child Left Behind waivers, so it seems likely Congress will not appreciate the president’s forays into their responsibility.

  1. Is the president again running up public debts that may one day have to be paid through taxes down the road?

Absolutely. The president is giving students an incentive to pay less of their loans and, thus, have taxpayers pay off more of them, both by limiting the payback time to 20 years and by limiting the amount students must pay on loans to 10 percent of their above-poverty-line income. If you look at the financials, that’s a pitiable amount. The United States is in no financial position to add any debt, let alone sponsor what is currently a $1 trillion student debt load.

  1. Is this an attempt by the President to “buy votes“?

That seems pretty obvious. He and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have said they want to get people more disposable income to boost the economy, which is the president’s major sinkhole right now.

  1. Joy, I washed dishes to get through college. I washed a lot of forks, knives and spoons and cups and saucers to get through college. Are our current students not also employed part time or are they all enjoying late morning classes and intramurals?

I worked through college, too, and also had a father who worked 80-hour weeks as a farmer to help pay for my degree. Most of my friends in college worked part-time. But, beyond anecdotes, several studies have come out in recent years noting that students are studying several hours a week less than they did just 20 years ago, taking lighter course loads, and signing up in droves for late-morning and midweek classes. Certainly many students still work in college, but many clearly are not.

Increased college costs are not only because students are partying more and studying less. Since 1982, they’ve increased almost 600 percent–more than cars, houses, and prescription drugs. In that time, the federal government has massively increased its higher ed subsidies, contributing to that inflation by giving money to students unprepared for colleges and to colleges regardless of their cost-effectiveness.

  1. I continually am amazed about developmental courses, remedial courses, college preparatory courses, study skill courses that attempt to prepare unprepared students for college- What is going on in the high schools in America?

The answer to that is extremely complex, but I can highlight a few contributing factors. First, we increasingly expect schools to take over as parents. Schools cannot motivate or demand from teens and children like parents can. Schools cannot provide a stable home situation critical to academic success. Parents are the ones who do and ought to set standards for hard work, self-discipline, and respect. This is a moral failure of our society we can’t remedy by more and more requirements from schools, but each individual deciding to pursue and encourage an excellent culture.

Second, schools have absurdly low standards. Yes, they have to deal with whatever students they get, but they can’t treat children like soggy biscuit ninnies. More kids should get Cs, and get used to thinking it’s a decent grade. The same for teachers and administrators.

Third, and most relevant to the discussion at hand, is that governments must stop the “everyone must go to college” madness. Not all students can be physicists. Not all can be doctors. Not all can be artists. But that’s ok, because we need plumbers, nannies, mothers, fathers, carpenters, and mechanics, too. Each child has a certain aptitude and inclination, and instead of squashing it with a false college ideal we ought to accord more respect to hard work and societal contribution than business card titles.

  1. What would be a better approach to this travesty?

I think I’ve outlined a few better approaches already, but regarding the president’s student amnesty plan I think we ought to provide a way out for students who really have no other options–which in the financial world we call “bankruptcy”–as students currently can’t get out of student loans even if declaring themselves bankrupt. This should be a difficult and serious option. Second, our society needs to make a college diploma less of a status symbol and entitlement, and parents and students should not take on loans they can’t afford, especially to pursue majors that aren’t likely to net a high-paying job. Third, the federal government must stop skewing the student loan and higher education market by giving both students and colleges taxpayer money to play with.

  1. Do you think ALL high school graduate should go on to college and university?

No. I agree with eminent social scientist Charles Murray that many students are not suited for college. Pushing them there just makes more dropouts, frustrated young people, and deteriorated curriculum. Young adults need a diverse set of post-high school options.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

Well, I don’t recall any questions about nuclear physics, which is just as well since I’m hopeless on that topic.

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