By Richard Vedder
Listening to Senator Edward Kennedy lecture us on higher education is a bit like listening to a talk from Monica Lewinsky or Madonna on the virtues of virginity or from Lorena Bobbitt on alternative approaches to surgery. It is faintly ridiculous, because, whatever the Senator's other virtues, he is not a great sage, and his Harvard career was, to put it mildly, undistinguished.
That said, however, the senator wrote some moderately intelligent things in his opinion piece in yesterday's edition of Inside Higher Ed. He generally had some fairly nice things to say about the Spellings Commission report and the Secretary's response, but criticized the lack of a real discussion of student loan programs. On that he was right on target. Our current programs are, as the Commission and Kennedy both said, "dysfunctional" (actually, that word was interjected into the commission report by me). The myriad of programs have disparate aims, are often duplicative, and are based on no coherent strategy. In some cases, student loan programs are to the upper middle class what food stamps are to the poor.
We need to revamp the whole system. The absolutely indefatigable Arthur Beroz has his "grantloan" scheme, that got some interest decades ago but has been ignored since. He challenges anyone to tell him where there are major flaws in his program. I think the time has come to analyze and debate Arthur's scheme. Or, taking an altogether different approach, why don't we phase out federal participation in lending activities altogether except for genuinely poor students? In other words, why don't we privatize this activity? Whatever your perspective, we need to have a serious conversation about student loan programs, with a goal of reforming them dramatically. In elevating attention to the issue, I agree with Senator Kennedy, an extremely rare event for me.