Conversations and Tribalism

Washington -- It is sobering and depressing to come back to the States to witness racial divisiveness in America, manifested by police killings. The national conversations we are admonished to engage in to lessen tensions obviously aren't working well. Indeed, there is concern that these conversations serve, counterproductively, to drive competing "tribes" even further into their "respective corners." Such is the regrettable language with which these issues are now discussed.

Perhaps conversations with our historical selves are in order. Looking back, where did we go wrong and is there any way, through such reflection, to get back on the right track?

Some of us are older; our memories go back to the years before and during the civil rights era of the 1960s. It may surprise those of more recent generations to learn that the goal of most moderates and progressives in that era was an integrated, colorblind society, to be achieved relatively quickly. Conservatives of the era held the view that change must come only slowly, which in some cases was a position sincerely held but often it was an excuse for the status quo, and discredited.

My hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, was partly segregated. Several of the cafés and taverns downtown were white-only. As a college senior at NU in the spring of 1965, I joined with friends both black and white to integrate a handful of establishments. Typically, four of us would sit down for service and be told by other patrons that whites could stay but blacks would have to leave. We did not budge and made it clear that if anyone was leaving, it was not us. Rarely was there further confrontation, but I remember one time my friends thought I was heading them into a fight, until the segregationist enforcers abruptly departed after sensing our determination (and that they would come out on the short end of any physical scuffles).

Overcoming segregation at NU itself was more difficult. Several NU affiliated organizations, fraternities and sororities most notably, had white-only clauses in their membership qualifications. University administrators, some of whom were members of organizations with white-only clauses, actually proposed as late as the early 1960s separate-but-equal organizations for blacks, in the tradition of the Second Morrill Act. In the neighborhood once known as T-Town, immediately northeast of the campus and largely black, the university razed housing and, in lease-purchase arrangements, built white-only sororities in the mid-1960s.

I am not singling out NU for criticism in recounting this. NU was not as bad as many universities when it came to race. Within a few years, its overt social discrimination ended.

My purpose in looking back on this history is to raise a question about how to hold conversations about race with those who do not know about this pivotal time. Such conversations would be helpful to understanding and resolving our current problems, I think. I'm afraid many who did not live through the era are unaware that it was once respectable to envision an integrated, colorblind society, and for a time much of American society acted accordingly. There were real advances in racial harmony. After a few years, a prominent black sociologist, William Julius Wilson, even wrote The Declinining Significance of Race.

But now progressives have placed their bets on identity politics, which emphasizes racial differences and voting blocs; conservatives do not want to acknowledge their troubled history with race or that they now sound like progressives of decades past; universities are heavily invested in racial distinctions, both in their academic departments and admissions offices. Words like integration and colorblind are not only out of fashion, they are ridiculed. Those with an interest in fanning racial resentment flames dominate discussions, despite evidence that wide majorities among all races have other priorities, such as economic advancement.

Who is going to pass along to younger generations that there was once a time of success and achievement, and that perhaps we should be having conversations about how to bring the better sentiments of that time back once again?






A Different 'Good Life'

Berlin -- Being a native and resident of Nebraska, I know all about 'The Good Life.' (It's a good state slogan, by the way. Let's keep it.)

But living in Berlin presents a different Good Life. Some aspects are even preferable, or at least serve as a refreshing alternative.

Der Tagesspiegel is a quality daily newspaper, always free online, with real news. No having to skip over three stories about football coaches to see if the world is at war or at peace.

• Public transportation alleviates the need for cars. Much is within walking distance.

• Mercifully, there are few chain stores. In Berlin-Kreuzberg, mom-and-pop establishments prevail. Grocery stores, taverns, cafés, restaurants, general stores, art galleries, and specialty stores are to be found all over, not to mention the markets that spring up almost every day selling everything imaginable for day-to-day living.

• Safe neighborhoods. Children walk the streets safely. Inventive playgrounds -- the pride of Berlin -- are everywhere. No guns around. Barnyard animals for children in neighborhood parks.

• No obsession over manicured lawns. Lots of natural areas. No chemical smells. Wonderful linden-tree aromas waft through the streets and along the canals in the summer.

• In Berlin-Kreuzberg, peaceful relations and tolerance prevail among the many ethnicities.

• Cultural activities for every taste. Lots of classical music performances, many free in churches. No oppressive, loud music in stores. Lots of singing birds in the parks and gardens.

• Delicious, fresh-baked rolls of a wide variety are waiting every morning to take home for breakfast. (I'm partial to Schrippen, Kürbisbrötchen, Roggenbrötchen, and Weltmeister.)

• Crazy sidewalk gardens. Architectural delights around every corner. Eye-popping juxtapositions. Wild building colors and murals.

• Peopled streetscapes at all hours. Interior courtyards for peace and quiet, and for contemplating the virtues of different ways of life and living.


Soviet Memorial in Berlin

Berlin -- It's been many years since I last visited the Soviet WWII cemetery and memorial in Berlin-Treptow. Today's walk through the site was the first time I've done so since our own WWII memorial was created on the mall in Washington, DC.

The Soviet memorial is noteworthy for its huge statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German child, erected on a mound of earth three stories high. Sixteen imposing sarcophagi -- one for each Soviet republic -- line the approach, each featuring stone relief carvings in socialist realism style. Josef Stalin's words are featured on all sixteen. The memorial was completed in 1949. It is overwhelming in its scale and totalitarian messaging.

When the plan for the WWII memorial in Washington was revealed, more than a few critics condemned it for its imitation of totalitarian grandiosity. I didn't like it -- still don't -- for that reason and because to me it seems like a memorial to Americans' directional confusion and geographic illiteracy. It places the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on the north and south, where Canada and Mexico are, not on the west and east sides of the memorial where they should be. It also makes it seem as if the war was fought by individual states, in an attempt to make some kind of misguided connection to the Civil War. It also has hundreds of five-pointed stars, which looks like an attempt to outdo the number of such stars in the Soviet memorial.

Many Americans say they like our WWII memorial. Surely a lot of us are just being polite and don't want to offend WWII veterans. It's too late now, but could we not have come up with something that better symbolized our great WWII victory without the whiff of a Soviet-style memorial?

Hamburg

Berlin -- A recent weekend trip to Hamburg casts light on an important time in our family's history. In October of 1880, my great-grandparents, John and Johanna Oberg, with their two young sons, Otto and Ben (my grandfather), left Europe for America. They traveled from Sweden to Hamburg where they embarked on the S.S. Wieland for Le Havre and New York.

Hamburg has established a new emigration museum on Veddel Island, the site from which my family likely departed. The museum deals mostly with emigration after that time, so the buildings and replicas are probably not those my family would have known. According to other family histories recounting emigration around 1880, it's likely the emigrants got into small boats at Veddel Island to be transported down the Elbe River to meet the larger ocean-going ships at the mouth of the river.

The museum nevertheless has mock-ups of between-deck accommodations on ships like the S.S. Wieland, a ship of the Hamburg America Packet Line (HAPAG). The small wooden bunks with low ceilings would have made for a difficult voyage. Families had to supply their own mattresses and bedding. Oberg family lore tells of an unpleasant voyage to New York. In New York, the family likely entered through Castle Garden, on the Battery, as Ellis Island was not yet in operation. The Statue of Liberty was still a few years away as well. In America, my family went first to Chicago to relatives who were already there and then, in 1885, to Nebraska.

As far as I know, I am the first of my family's descendants to re-visit the departure point in Hamburg. Hamburg today would be recognizable to 1880 travelers, because it prohibits high rise construction that would obscure church spires and lighthouses that go back centuries. I can imagine my ancestors' feelings and impressions as they embarked on their voyage.

The ship's manifest seems to have the age of the boys wrong, as it lists Otto as being eleven months old and Ben being one month old. In fact, Otto was born in 1877 and Ben in 1878, so they were three and two, respectively. John was thirty when they left for America; Johanna was twenty-eight.



Refugees in Berlin

Berlin -- In my Kreuzberg neighborhood, the welcome signs are still out for refugees. Across the park, a volunteer center enlists those who want to help handle the newcomers. There are many such volunteers.

That's the upbeat side of the story. The reality of the situation is not so good. Local, state, and federal governments are overwhelmed by the refugees. Unscrupulous hostel and hotel owners have been packing refugees into uninhabitable conditions to make quick profits off government payments. Government payments are so slow, many otherwise good service providers have given up on attending to refugee needs. This includes those offering German language instruction.

Last weekend I went over to the Templehof neighborhood to see conditions there. The huge building at the former airport -- still the third largest building in the world -- shows few outward signs of housing thousands of refugees, as it did over the winter. Many have been moved out once their asylum applications were approved. Some refugees have returned to their native countries, not liking the prospects here. Surely being sequestered in an old airplane hangar during long, cold Berlin winter nights was not what refugees hoped for.

Those refugees still in the hangars apparently are not allowed out into the adjoining park, Templehofer Feld, which is fenced off. Looking through the fence, one can see a few children riding bikes on the apron next to the hangars and a few pieces of laundry hung out to dry. It looks desolate.

Kreuzberg is multi-ethnic, so refugees among us do not stand out. Surely there are many. On the U-Bahn, a family of four looks as if they could be refugees. They apparently have been clothed by donations, as their clothes are fresh but ill-fitting. One of the little boys is delighted with an oversized pair of goggle-glasses. The mother looks pleased that her family is safe and together. The father looks worried about the family's future.

Postscript: Two news stories illustrate the latest developments. Der Tagesspiegel reports troubles among refugees who don't want to go back to Templehof hangars. The New York Times gives a more optimistic view of how newcomers are being welcomed in Berlin.




Pox All Around

Washington -- The New York Times recently offered readers what appeared simply to be good financial advice in an article "The Best Way to Help A Grandchild with College." But in a quick rejoinder a college president said he was stunned that the article appeared, claiming it was shameful to try to hide potential tuition-paying resources from colleges. He said his college was doing its best to help students pay for college with institutional aid based on merit and need, and that grandparents and parents should not try to game the system.

A college admissions officer was even more blunt: "I will not help you hide your money when you apply for financial aid."

College officials would have more credibility if only they were transparent about their own financial aid gaming. Colleges routinely siphon off federal aid aimed at needy students. The trend of financial aid is unmistakably toward those who don't need it, at the expense of those who do. So much for the argument that grandparents who read financial advice columns are responsible for the lack of aid to needy students. Colleges even mislead charities willfully, falsely telling them that the funds they raise will help needy students pay for college. These are not isolated examples. Colleges are engaged in widespread, systematic gaming of students, families, charities, and taxpayers.

A pox on all of the gamers, including those in Congress who perpetuate such a diabolically difficult student financial aid system. Let's add a pox on the U.S. Department of Education, too, for not cracking down on those who undermine the purpose and mission of federal programs.

There is an opportunity coming up to change things: the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is being drafted in Congress. But don't get your hopes up. There is little evidence that we are in for anything but six more years of financial aid gaming by whichever parties are clever enough to do it or, to put it another way, naive enough not to.

Worried About Nebraska

Lincoln -- Nebraska is no longer the same place I grew up in. Although I was born here and Nebraska is still my domicile, much has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

When I was growing up in the 40s and 50s, Nebraskans had remarkable longevity compared to the rest of the country. Hardy pioneer stock, we explained. Good food from our fields and gardens, we thought. Now we Nebraskans lag behind places like New York City and San Francisco in longevity. It may be the result of our less healthy, car-centric, HFCS-swilling lifestyle, combined with a more toxic environment. One disturbing new indicator: Nebraska has the highest incidence of Parkinson's disease in the nation, according to research that correlates the disease geographically with pesticide usage.

The change is about more than health indicators.

Our literature of the past several decades comes nowhere close to the works of earlier Nebraskans like Cather and Sandoz. Our politics, which once produced the founder of the modern Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan, and produced a remarkable Republican, Nobel laureate Charles Dawes as well as the maverick Republican George Norris, hasn't seen their likes since. Nebraska is not a competitive two-party state, nor is there much room for other than an imported, grump-talk conservatism for the prevalent ideology. Bryan, Dawes, and Norris likely would not stand a chance if running for office in today's Nebraska. Indeed, my congressman is actually from Louisiana and the man who won the primary in my state legislative race is from Texas. These are not people of the Nebraska pioneer strain.

State government, which once summoned the resources and will to build the architectural wonder that is the Nebraska State Capitol, has sunk to new lows in prison scandals. No one from the governor on down seems able to keep track of prisoners' sentences, despite tough talk on fighting crime. This year, in a vote I thought I'd never see, the Nebraska legislature sacrificed the state's independent pork producers to a company owned by China, which will now dictate terms as to how hogs will be raised in Nebraska. (Yes, Red China, the authoritarian country of unfathomable food safety problems and choking environmental pollution.)

Nebraska's cities are no longer the tree-covered oases of my childhood. No more shade-dappled streets and homes with front porches; the houses now favored have great expanses of concrete slab fronting forbidding garage doors, behind which are hidden afterthought houses. Flip through Lincoln's "Parade of Homes." The vast majority of these houses are for people whose lives are not centered around neighborliness. The buyers want nature subdued, not celebrated. The more that can be paved-over, the better.

The State University, where the first graduate college was established west of the Mississippi, and which once was known as the Harvard of the Plains with only mild exaggeration, has fallen in national esteem. It has been voted out of the prestigious Association of American Universities, of which it had been a proud member (led by its natural sciences faculty) since 1909. No other university in the country has suffered the same indignity. And few in Nebraska seem to have much cared.

Grain prices are low. At the nearest local co-op, corn is $3.56 per bushel, wheat is $3.59, sorghum is $3.24. Farmers are continuing to leave the land, as they have been for decades. Farmers with diversified operations to hedge farming risks across wheat, feed grains, hay, and livestock, using crop rotation to preserve the soil, are mostly gone. Chemical agriculture has replaced them, luring farmers into dreams of high commodity prices driven by markets that too often proved illusory. Chemical agriculture is also responsible for the dangerous decline of pollinators essential, ironically, to many kinds of food production. It has also led indirectly to the deadly chemical of choice for many disaffected rural youth: meth. The decline in longevity in Nebraska is due in part to a vicious cycle of hopelessness linked to changes in agriculture.

There is a glimmer of hope, so small it seems almost foolish to raise it. The new UNL chancellor has been working to bring the faculty of the agriculture campus and the faculty of the city campus closer together. The gulf between them is wide. The ag faculty has, inadvertantly or not, championed the changes that have depopulated much of the state, while the sociology, botany, history, political science, and economics faculties have recorded the declines in many social and natural science indicators. I wish the project well. It's about time they got together. I'm worried about Nebraska. We can do better.







Caught in Loan Hell

Washington -- How is it that consumers, especially borrowers, can get caught up in run-arounds from which there is apparently no exit? How can this happen even when consumers have done nothing wrong, but have explicitly followed the directions they were given to resolve issues?

It's not as if such situations are mere nuisances. They can result in bad consequences, such as having one's credit score lowered for a loan mix-up, or in the case of student loans, being defenseless while education is interrupted, credit scores lowered, income tax refunds taken, wages garnisheed, and even bankruptcy options eliminated. Student loans are the worst type of loans, not only because consumers have so few rights, but loan snafus affect borrowers at a most vulnerable time in life, when they are first trying to make successful futures for themselves.

It does not help that many student loans are still handled through an inefficient, antiquated, uncaring system filled with players concerned more about their own profits and paychecks than solving borrower problems. This includes some people and offices in the U.S. Department of Education itself.

Consider the case of Charles Stewart, who has given me permission to write about his situation. He has been trying for over twenty years to get his life back from student loan hell, to no avail. He first took out loans (a Stafford and an SLS) at Fisk University where he was a student in the mid-1990s for three semesters before transferring to Edward Waters College for a fourth. The financial aid office at Edward Waters, however, did not file in-school deferment papers on the loans correctly, and the loans went into repayment status and then into default.

These being loans guaranteed by the federal government, Chemical Bank, holder of the loans, filed to recoup their losses with USA Funds, a non-profit guaranty agency. USA Funds paid.

Soon thereafter, however, Chemical Bank realized that Charles Stewart was eligible for hardship deferral/forbearance and issued a reprieve retroactively on both loans.

The U.S. Department of Education determined that it was not within Chemical Bank's authority to issue the retroactive actions after it had already been reimbursed by the guaranty agency, and pursued repayment of the loans itself from Charles Stewart. But he was not able to continue his education and not able to repay the loans.

This dragged on for years while Mr. Stewart tried to clear up the paperwork with the Department of Education so he could go back to school. At first he found a sympathetic loan analyst at the Department who tried to undo the mistakes and restore Charles Stewart's eligibility for federal student aid.

It didn't happen. USA Funds did not cooperate with the analyst's suggestion that they take back the loans. This was a reasonable approach by the analyst inasmuch as guaranty agencies like USA Funds are allowed to charge borrowers fees and get federal subsidies in order to see that the loan programs are correctly administered.

The analyst told Charles Stewart to be patient. In the meantime, he provided him with a letter of eligibility for student financial aid, an appropriate action under the circumstances. But as the Department analyst ran out of solutions, he told Mr. Stewart that perhaps only a lawsuit from him would resolve the issue. Things went from bad to worse when the analyst discovered that collection letters, which were supposed to have been suspended until a solution was found, were going out from the Department. He told Charles Stewart to ignore them.

Many consumers are all too familar with this nightmare: being told one thing on the phone or email but being told something else by letter. Not to mention being advised to file a lawsuit as the best solution.

The sympathetic Department loan analyst was never able to solve the problem. He was transferred; on his way elsewhere he wished Charles Stewart good luck.

Mr. Stewart retained counsel and for a time, it appeared as if progress was being made toward resolution. Then the lawyer failed to follow through on what he had set in motion and had to give up Mr. Stewart as a client because the lawyer took employment with a firm that represented student loan lenders, a conflict of interest. He referred Mr. Stewart to Legal Aid.

This is the kind of situation that calls out for someone to take responsibility. The Secretary has powers under the statute governing student loan programs to compromise loans when it is in the best interest of the government to do so. Secretary Margaret Spellings in January, 2007, used her powers to write off over $700 million of federal taxpayer dollars due from lenders. One would think there might be a process somewhere through which a borrower such as Charles Stewart might be given a break. If the Department cannot get USA Funds to do the right thing, it should cancel the loans itself and use the case as a cautionary tale. It would be worth more than the cost of cancellation to impress on all how important it is to have colleges capable of administering federal programs; how guaranty agencies need to keep borrowers' interests in mind, not just banks' interests; and how the credibility of the Department can be hurt when these kinds of situations occur.

When I worked in the Department of Education's Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs in the 1990s, these kinds of cases sometimes landed on my desk. Often they came through congressional offices as a result of irate constituents demanding action. Some dedicated caseworkers on the Hill knew how to get problems solved by escalating them, even to the point of demanding the Secretary appear before a Senator or Congressman in person to apologize for the Department's incompetence or complicity. At this point I would customarily call the bank, the guaranty agency, the college, or whoever had been a part of the foul-up and ask them to be present. Give us twenty-four hours, they would often ask. More times than not, a day later they would call and say "problem solved, no need for a meeting."

That remedy may also exist for Charles Stewart, but increasingly, it seems to me there are fewer caseworkers on the Hill or anywhere who can solve consumer and constituent problems. Good caseworkers on the Hill are hard to find. Staff want to play politics, not help constituents with knotty problems. The creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has been a breath of fresh air, and that agency may also be a remedy for Charles Stewart. But nothing would be more appropriate than for the Department of Education to set things right itself, with no further prompting. Enough with the finger-pointing. There's so much blame to go around that this case should be turned into a training exercise. Talk about a teachable moment.





Tragedy and Farce at the Statehouse

Lincoln -- The sad stories of two Nebraska state agencies suggest that, as the old saying goes, history repeats itself... first as tragedy, then as farce.

The continuing troubles at the Department of Corrections are the tragedy. Nebraska's correctional institutions are not safe for either guards or inmates. The farce is newly uncovered mismanagement at the Nebraska Tourism Commission, in the form of nepotism, cost overruns, exorbitant speaker fees, and wildly excessive employee moving expenses, all being done under the noses of oblivious tourism commissioners.

Two governors, immediate past and present, were quick to call for the firing of the director of the Tourism Commission, as if she were the cause of all the trouble, not the gubernatorially appointed commissioners. Could be. Others around the statehouse suggested the independent Tourism Commission should execute a contract with the state's Department of Administrative Services (DAS) to help it with financial management. Others said the Tourism Commission should be placed back under the Department of Economic Development, where it was until made an independent state agency by the Nebraska legislature in 2012.

A deep breath and a little history are in order.

None of this should have happened at the Tourism Commission in the first place had state government been functioning properly. Long ago, to his credit, Governor Tiemann led an effort to modernize Nebraska state government by creating clear lines of budget and accounting authority from the governor on down. The idea was to give the governor executive budget authority to make spending recommendations to the legislature for all agencies and to centralize in one department, under the governor, responsibility for executing the legislature's ultimate budget and accounting for the state's expenditures under that budget. In this way, all state agencies, whether directly under the control of the governor, independent as created by the legislature, or separately created by the state constitution, would be under the same general rules for budget preparation, execution, and accounting.

Under the Tiemann-led effort, the Department of Administrative Services was created to provide these functions, its director to be appointed by and responsible to the governor. Within DAS, a budget division was created with a small staff of budget analysts to work with all agencies to help train their personnel in fiscal administration, keep track of their spending to make sure it was authorized by law, and generally to monitor the agencies to keep them focused on their missions and out of trouble. When troubles came up, as they always do, it was the responsibility of the DAS budget analysts to recommend solutions to the governor and to the legislature. Sometimes that entailed agency cutbacks; sometimes the analysts would recommend, through the governor, supplemental appropriations as the best solution. Likewise, a DAS accounting division was created to handle the actual mechanics of central bill-paying and financial reporting. These DAS divisions were created to serve all of state government.

Under Tiemann's successor, Governor Exon, this system was put to test by the State Department of Education, an agency with a constitutionally established, independently elected board. Although the legislature in 1973 created a new program to assist in the education of handicapped children, the Education Department wanted to distribute the millions in new funds the same way it always had without regard to the new legislation. The DAS budget division, monitoring the situation, consulted with the attorney general's office, which agreed that the Education Department's distribution plan would violate the law. The Education Department persisted, citing its independent, constitutional status. Governor Exon personally went before a special session of the State Board of Education and persuaded it to direct its staff to follow the law. The system worked; the misappropriation of funds was caught in time; the program director at the Education Department who caused the dust-up soon moved on to other employment.

(Sidebar: Governor Exon's appearance before the State Board of Education was facilitated by its chairman, Gerald Whelan of Hastings. Exon and Whelan met at the Cornhusker Hotel for coffee before the meeting to go over the issues. For the next election, Exon chose Whelan as his lieutenant governor running mate.)

All of which raises the question of how the current Tourism Commission got so far off track. Yes, perhaps its director was not up to the management challenges; yes, perhaps the tourism commissioners were not paying attention. But these kinds of problems should be anticipated and even expected. Nebraska governors have long since been given the tools to train agency personnel and to monitor agency fiscal performance, even in cases where the governor does not have policy control.

Governor Ricketts came into office touting his business acumen. But in his rush to re-organize the top levels of state government, creating offices and titles to match up with his private business experience (only to quickly disestablish or by-pass them), Govenor Ricketts seems not to have familiarized himself with the existing structure and tools at his disposal to stop state government from making a farce of itself. Which is not to say that his ideas for reorganization might not have had merit or that the old ways of doing things were perfect. But his finger-pointing is a little too much, unless he also is willing to point occasionally in the mirror.

It strikes me as a bad, bad idea to have an agency "contract" with DAS. All agencies should be working with DAS already. DAS should be reaching out to train personnel and to understand the issues, large and small, that all agencies confront, to help them with solutions and to bring major problems to the attention of elected officials early enough to prevent both tragedies and farces.






Nice to Have Company, But...

Washington -- It's nice to see a like-minded author write on higher education finance in a prominent Capitol Hill publication. Ingrid Schroeder, director of fiscal federalism initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts, makes a strong case for a better understanding of how higher education funding streams interact in her article "Footing the Bill for Higher Education." An excerpt:

Both states and the federal government contribute significant funding to higher education — similar to transportation, K-12 education and other policy areas. However, higher education is unlike these other areas, where there are generally federal-state funding matches or states are required to maintain a certain funding level to receive federal dollars. In higher education, states can, for the most part, cut spending without a loss of federal support.

But it's disappointing, so far, that those in Congress with committee jurisdiction over higher education have yet to put forth changes to the Higher Education Act that reflect an understanding of these increasingly painful realities of fiscal federalism. Although the federal government continues to pour billions into higher education, states and institutions have been reducing their support in the very area -- college affordability -- where the federal government has been increasing its spending. One result is student loan debt that now exceeds $1.3 trillion nationwide and is a drag on the economy, not to mention how student loan debt gone wrong is taking a devastating toll on millions of individuals and families.

Instead of using the tools of fiscal federalism to keep federal, state, and institutional funding streams in balance, Congress over the years has been killing off or strangling the programs in the Higher Education Act that contain matching and maintenance of effort provisions. It's not as if the federal fiscal effort needs huge increases; what it desperately needs is re-balancing among the various spending and tax expenditure programs to draw the states and the institutions back into "cooperative federalism."

To the credit of several past and present presidential candidates of both parties, their proposals for higher education affordability acknowledge the role that states and institutions must play. Where is the Congress?