In the wake of President Biden’s statement at his first presidential town hall that he is against forgiving up to $50,000 of student loan debt, I went to the one weapon I have to be heard publicly, Twitter.
I tweeted a message that I’ve shared before, that one of my chief reasons for supporting the cancellation of student loan debt is because we as a society reneged on a promise. We said that the cost of an education to the student would be worth it in terms of future economic benefits. Taking on debt was worth it because having the degree would allow individuals to pay off their debt and then some.
Simultaneously, we created an employment marketplace where a college degree became a credential for many jobs that arguably did not require the underlying educational experiences of a college degree.
The result was a system in which, for many, a post-secondary degree became what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “negative social insurance. ” While Cottom’s book focuses on for-profit schools, where the price of this negative social insurance is highest, we see the same dynamic for many who attended not-for-profit colleges and universities. The acquisition of debt in pursuit of prosperity has had the opposite effect, and been proven difficult to impossible to pay off, to the tune of almost $2 trillion in aggregate.
Cancelling existing debt, and then taking steps to change the current system so we do not repeat this cycle is an important recognition that we (as a society) screwed up and we’re now going to do things differently. I said that I thought someone like Joe Biden who seems to be a big believer in standing by one’s word and keeping one’s promise could perhaps get behind this rationale for acting boldly on this issue.
Into the thread, unbidden stepped Jeff Selingo, higher education writer and consultant, and author most recently of an inside accounting of how admissions work at highly selective colleges and universities. He replied to my tweet calling for cancellation, “How about we use the money to invest in a better, stronger, more affordable higher ed system in the future.”
I replied: “Not either/or. Both/and. A broken promise in the past must be repaired along with a renewed promise for the future. To do one without the other defeats both.
Selingo: “We have to make choices at some point, so yes it is an either/or.”
Me: “That’s a nice platitude without meaning or substance. I’d be glad to send you a copy of my book where I show that it need not be either/or if we instead look at higher ed from a standpoint of mission instead of operations.”
I then offered to send Selingo a copy of my book in either hard copy or as a PDF.
And then, reader, Jeff Selingo blocked me on Twitter.
To be honest, I am not much bothered by someone blocking me on Twitter. Of the people I’m aware of who block me, Selingo is among the most prominent, but what was strange was him showing up in my thread to exchange views and then when I offered him my book, blocking me. As a matter of Twitter etiquette and practice, it’s very strange.
Jeff Selingo is one of the most prominent voices on higher education over the last twenty years. A former editor at the Chronicle, he is now an author, consultant, advisor to the president of Arizona State University, and podcaster. The system as presently constituted has great use for people like Jeff Selingo who promise to provide insights on how to navigate the turbulence post-secondary institutions are facing, particularly in the “post covid” world. This is the work of managing austerity and decline, where the consultants promise brighter days, or at least less dim days than the organizations who don’t hire them, providing the consultants’ prescriptions are followed, or course.
Less my tone be too subtle, I do not think much of this work. I think that we only need to look at the state of our public higher education institutions to understand how disastrous allowing these sorts of folks to control the narrative of what higher education is, and who higher education is for, over the last few decades. They have spent a lot of time telling us what’s not possible, about the choices we must make, choices which have been bad for students and institutions, in my opinion.
Jeff Selingo is right about something, though not in the way he means it. “We have to make choices at some point,” he says, indicating that we can’t both forgive past debt and make future college affordable.
I agree we have to make choices, but the choices I have in mind are different. Are we going to live our purported values, or are we going to prop up a system that provides advantages to an extreme minority while enriching a few?
Do we want the money invested in our public higher education institutions to go towards consultants and algorithmic software that advises institutions on the patterns of behavior among prospective students in order to gauge who might be a good candidate for admission and even merit aid?
Do we want the money invested in our public higher education institutions to pay for marketers and recruiters who are tasked with luring students, for example, from Illinois to the University of Alabama by the boatload. Do we want to spend millions on algorithmic interventions for test proctoring, grading, and even student mental health?
Or, do we want our colleges and universities to be human enterprises oriented around the mission of teaching and learning.
The book that I offered to send Jeff Selingo for free, Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, is my best attempt to put forward an argument that our institutions be oriented around mission (teaching and learning), rather than operations (revenue generation). My belief is that over time, this orientation would shrink the aggregate cost of post-secondary education, while putting more of that money towards the mission.
It is nothing to be afraid of. Full disclosure, it might be good for people like me who are available to consult on issues of pedagogy, but I’m willing to stand by that orientation as an improvement for the institution as a whole and the students who attend.
Big picture, Jeff Selingo has the upper hand in this debate. His book is a New York Times notable. He gets to roll out its release with a future on a major network morning news show. He can get college presidents on his podcast. Major consultancies are soliciting his expertise.
I got this blog and I’m grateful for it, but let’s face it, I’m not going to get six minutes of chat with Gayle King.
I also know I’m eager for the debate.
What’s Jeff Selingo so afraid of?
And what kind of person turns down a free book, no matter what it’s about?
 Joining Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic (who I snarkily accused of having reading comprehension problems), and Jonathan Chait of New York (who I intemperately called a “hack” years ago). I mean, I’m correct, but fair enough on these gentlemen’s parts in both cases.
 Though, I sure would like to.