Andrew Yang is running for President where his policy ideas such as universal basic income are earning him a growing cadre of followers. And unlike many other candidates, Yang’s proposals are rich and detailed, which is great.
Yang’s rich and detailed plans for higher education, though, are not great. They are all at once incorrect, dishonest, dangerous and likely the most hostile to higher education proposed by any candidate in a generation. In many ways, what Yang proposes for higher education would be worse than what President Trump has already done
As examples, Yang supports cutting funding for colleges, cutting student loans, he incorrectly and deceptively questions the value of college, blames academic bureaucrats, ignores the carnage caused by for-profit colleges and even recycles and misuses conservative, anti-education talking points from the Reagan administration.
Here are some examples.
As background, it’s important to note that Yang was the CEO of a for-profit education company, Manhattan GMAT, a test-preparation company. He was in charge during its 2009 sale to Kaplan, the billion-dollar, for-profit education company and the namesake of the former for-profit, mostly online Kaplan University. A profile of Yang in The Verge said the sale of Manhattan to Kaplan was, “a huge windfall for anyone holding stock,” which Yang was.
That’s important because, in thousands of words of higher education policy proposals, Yang never mentions for-profit schools. Even though they are a major driver of student debt, school closures, lawsuits, substandard outcomes, online education and loan defaults, for-profit colleges are absent from Yang’s policy plans.
The closest Yang gets to calling out for-profit colleges is proposing “a commission that will explore debt forgiveness or reduction for students who sought degrees under false pretenses.” It’s already possible to seek debt cancellation if you’ve been defrauded. Moreover, “a commission” to “explore” does nothing to prevent schools from defrauding students and misusing federal grants and loans in the first place.
Yang does also propose to “Close schools with high loan default rates and consistently low employment placement success” and “Police and prosecute all marketing representations of schools that might induce enrollment under false pretenses.” Again, policing and prosecuting misleading marketing is already possible, although it seldom happens. And it’s not clear how a President can close schools. But by flagging bad conduct instead of the profit-seeking business model that drives it, Yang does not seem to see rewarding private investors with federal education funds as a problem on its own. And he proposes no solution beyond what’s already the law.
Yang is under the impression that colleges and universities are expensive because they can’t control their costs, that they are bloated, inefficient, top-heavy and leaking money. “It’s likely that schools are not up to the task of bringing down their own budgets, and government will have to help them scale back and become more cost-efficient,” Yang’s plans say. “Colleges need to tighten up,” Yang tweeted in September.
Setting aside that some 78% of undergraduates go to public schools that are already run by the government, the idea that colleges spend too much money and are incapable of doing otherwise is a talking point that’s repeatedly used to cut education funding. And cutting funding is clearly what Yang means by “scale back” and “become more cost-efficient.” Yang has proposed many ways in which he’d shrink college funding.
In addition to being short-sighted, forced budget cutting at colleges doesn’t work. The last time the government scaled back higher education funding, as a result of the 2008 recession, tuition went up and so did student borrowing and debt.
Yang frequently repeats the trope linking the rising cost of higher education to “administrative excess.” In December, Yang tweeted, “Why has college gotten 250% more expensive in the past 30 years? It’s not quality improvements. Or faculty. Or even facilities. It’s administration and bureaucracy. The number of college administrators has gone up 250% in the same period.” In September, it was, “College has tripled in price despite no real change in quality. It is not professors or even facilities. It is administrators…” And so on.
So solid is the link between college administrators and costs in Yang’s view that he proposes, “as a condition of public funding,” schools be required to meet “a desired ratio of administrators to students” saying if we do that, “college will be much cheaper.”
The simple problem is that’s not true. Or, at best, it’s flimsy. While there are more non-academic staff at colleges now than there were 30 years ago, there are also more computers. College is different than it was in 1988. We’re asking colleges to do way more than we did then. Today, we expect, even demand, that colleges provide more financial, health, technology, safety and career services to student populations that are growing in number and diversity.
Threatening to cut college funding over the number of nameless administrators is foremost, another proposed cut to college funding endorsed by Yang. But it’s also a wildly popular idea in conservative, anti-education circles. So much so that it was recently expressly endorsed on the opinion pages of the arch-conservative Wall St. Journal.
Even more, at one point, Yang directly linked the rising cost of college to the ability of students to pay for it. “College tuition is skyrocketing not because consumers have choices – quite the opposite. It is skyrocketing because government has subsidized massive loans just for education. I’d scale that back,” he Tweeted in September.
Here, Yang is saying directly that he’d cut access to federal student loans. But he’s also repeating what’s known as the Bennett Hypothesis. Named for conservative Republican Bill Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, it’s the baseless idea that access to federal loans allows colleges to increase their prices without reason and that, as a consequence, there’s no point in investing more money in education because it will only make college more expensive. Even though it’s unproven, the idea has been used since the 1980s as an excuse to deny funding boosts for colleges, grants and loans.
The Jobs, ROI
Yang also likes to say that colleges are failing the jobs test. Not only is the premise itself flawed, the information Yang shares to make his point is felony-level misinformation.
“The underemployment rate for college grads is 34% overall and 44% for recent college graduates. We should stop pretending that college degrees create jobs. They often don’t,” he tweeted in April. He’s cited that 44% underemployment number at least 16 times on Twitter, often linking it to record student debt levels, implying that students are going in debt for nothing.
The 44% number comes from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Yang cites it in this Forbes article which says plainly, “This measure is undoubtedly subjective and should thus be taken with a grain of salt.” Further, the rate is basically unchanged since 1989, meaning it has nothing to do with new debt levels or exploding numbers of college administrators, Yang loves to talk about.
But the bigger point is in the opening line to the Forbes article Yang shares, which says, “It’s well known that college graduates enjoy both lower unemployment rates and higher earnings …” No kidding. Having a college degree absolutely makes you more likely to have a job and earn more money. In fact, just this week, the NY Fed, the source of Yang’s repeated 44% stat, published a paper titled, “Despite Rising Costs, College Is Still a Good Investment.”
Yang is flat wrong on there being no link between college and good jobs. And implying so, letting young people believe there’s any good reason to forgo college, is not just bad advice, it’s borderline immoral , on par with denying the science of climate change.
ROI as Funding Policy
But it’s not just that Yang pushes down the value of college, it’s that his belief shows up in his policy proposals. Specifically, Yang proposes to “create an information database on all post-secondary education institutions” that will accumulate loan, employment and wage data. Again, this already exists, but that’s not the point because Yang says he wants to, “Stipulate that any university that receives public funding cannot increase its costs by more than the rate of annual median wage growth [of its graduates] the year before.”
It’s not clear how President Yang would “stipulate” such a thing. Nonetheless, tying education funding to wage gains belongs in the pantheon of bad ideas because it fails basic economics. But also because it, again, sets this idea that colleges would do better if someone yanked their funding chain. But foremost, it’s an awful idea because colleges don’t exist to do job training for business, they serve a different, better, higher purpose.
Yang has ideas on student debt too, but mostly they prove that he doesn’t understand it. For example, Yang wants to “initiate a program that allows graduates to pay a percent of income instead of a fixed amount.” And, again, that program already exists. Yang also says he wants to “ask schools to forgive in part or in whole the debts of those who do not graduate,” seemingly unaware that schools don’t generally make student loans or carry student debt. And even if they did, Yang seems blind to the perverse incentive his policy would create – drop out and get your loans forgiven, stick it out and owe.
His campaign also promises to, “Immediately reduce the student loan payments for millions of Americans by ensuring that the American government does not profit one cent from its educational loan servicing.” But Yang is off again. Depending on how you count it, the federal government does not make a profit on its direct student loans. In fact, there’s general agreement that the program probably loses money in the long run. Moreover, the only way to be sure the government’s student loans don’t make money is to shift more of the risk to borrowers, actually increasing their payments.
As for what Yang actually wants, he told Bloomberg, “my plan is to forgive the vast majority of that student loan debt” even though his written plans do not say that. Instead, his plans say he wants to, “Explore a blanket partial reduction in the principal of school loans for recent graduates.” It is not clear what exploring a partial reduction means but it’s obviously not a specific plan that outlines who would get forgiveness, for what or when.
Yang does have a written plan to make community colleges, “tuition free or nearly-free for anyone.” But it appears Yang himself may not agree with it. In December, Yang tweeted, “Many progressives are for free college education. I’m for the spirit of that but think it is the wrong policy. You are pretending that college degrees create jobs. They don’t. They create underemployed college grads” – returning to the bogus idea that college degrees aren’t worth it and hinting at the misleading underemployment stat.
Curiously, just as Yang never mentions for-profit colleges, his plans also never mention the one thing that can, and does, make college free for millions of low-income Americans – Pell Grants. They are the single biggest, best way to expand access to higher education and reduce student loans, which is why every other Democratic candidate for President has called for increasing them.
Odd and Good
Not all Yang’s education ideas are bad. He wants a ban on linking college compensation to a college’s rankings. That’s probably a good idea. He also wants to reform the ranking systems used most notably by U.S. News and World Report. That’s probably a good idea too unless he wants to make the ranking only about job outcomes. He doesn’t say. Yang also wants to “revisit” the tax status of some colleges with large endowments, which is a discussion worth having.
He also has some education ideas that are just odd, such as calling for a tax on existing, well-endowed schools to start new schools no one is asking for in places where college enrollment is actually shrinking. He also has a plan to get exclusive schools to expand when doing so would, by definition, ruin their exclusivity.
Yang, and all candidates for office, should know that spending less money on colleges, cutting student loans, blaming administrators, misleading people about college outcomes and ignoring the for-profits is a recipe for killing American higher education. It’s not clear whether Yang just don’t know that’s what he’s proposing or whether that’s what he wants.