A Berlin Demonstration

Berlin -- Walking last Saturday evening from Kreuzberg to Neukölln along my usual route through Heinrich Platz, I ran into a formidable police presence preparing for a potential clash with marching demonstrators. I turned onto Oranienstrasse and was soon caught between a thousand or so marchers and two lines of police. Except for a few marchers who were determined to provoke the police, it was all peaceful. No store-fronts smashed; no right-wing nationalist trouble-makers.

The demonstrators were marching in sympathy with Berlin's small population of asylum-seekers, protesting the conditions they live in and the idea of a "fortress Europe" that looks away from the victims of war and circumstance in Africa and the Middle East. Or they were in search of a good time, a moving festival. It had been a long seven days since the noisy Christopher Street celebration in Kreuzberg. Any storm in a port.

As I was filming the scene with my little camera, a young woman departed the march and came running up to me with a big smile. At first it didn't register with me who she was; suddenly I recognized my daughter! Later in the evening we had dinner together under lindens in deepest Neukölln.

The Inability to Restrain Borrowing

Washington -- Ben Miller's latest offering in The Chronicle of Higher Education should be carefully read at the Department of Education, the White House, and the Congress. Especially this:

"The story of Pell and its inability to meaningfully restrain borrowing exemplify the challenges of unilateral federal financial-aid investments. Without conditions on states and institutions that introduce real requirements about providing an affordable education, federal dollars will keep getting gobbled up by insatiable college budgets and state officials looking for ways to supplant their own education spending."

In other words, no conceivable amount of Pell spending is going to slow down the student debt juggernaut without addressing the responsibilities of states and colleges.

This is not news to some of us. In 1997, I wrote in the Journal of Federalism that federal student financial aid programs that operated in the tradition of cooperative federalism (with some restraints on states and colleges) were more effective than those like the Pell program, which did not. In 2002, I completed an unpublished paper showing that increases in Pell grants were not associated with declines in student debt load for the low-income. Although that paper was written while I was at the National Center for Education Research within the Department of Education, it was unwelcome. The Department was adamant that its researchers were not to do any actual research, but rather administer grants to college researchers, who were unlikely to suggest that Pell grants might not be effective in holding down student debt burdens. That topic has long been verboten.

Two years ago, on an Education Sector panel in Washington, I suggested "re-balancing" federal student grant appropriations by tilting the funding more to programs in the cooperative federalism tradition, to help prevent the raw exploitation of mindlessly appropriated federal dollars that have been such a failure in reining in student loan debt. I think that is still a sound suggestion.

It's a Start, Thank You

Washington -- It is gratifying to see others come to the same views that are expressed occasionally in these pages.

Today the President is using the phone and the pen with his Secretary of Education to deal with the student loan mess. He will be making it easier for borrowers to pay off their loans and will be changing the way the collection industry operates.

This should be followed by more such actions, all under authority of existing law. The Secretary needs to enforce transparency requirements and use his limitation, suspension, and termination powers to root out waste and abuse especially in student loan, proprietary school, and enrollment management enterprises. It is long past time to stop college dream exploitation industries from ruining yet more lives and grievously harming our very society. Hardly a day goes by without major media coverage about what the student loan muddle is doing to hurt the economy, let alone what damage has been done to individuals and families across the country.

Likewise, thanks to Kevin Carey for his report on the sorry state of affairs at the Association of American Universities (AAU), and to Paul Basken for his coverage at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Clearly, I am not the only one who is deeply disappointed in this organization. The AAU is a lobbying organization that asks Congress for federal funds for research. If I were staff on the Hill (which I once was) and the AAU came petitioning to my office, I would ask them to leave until they got their own house in order.