Fighting Award Displacement and Student Loan Debt While Finding a New Moral Compass

imageEver hear of “award displacement?”

Neither had I, until a higher education maven recently brought it to my attention.

For example, if you are struggling to finance your higher education and are able to line up a $5,000 private scholarship on your own from a Rotary Club to help make up the still unmet financial aid you were deemed eligible for, it is not uncommon for the college you attend to reduce whatever aid they had promised you as part of your financial aid package by that same $5,000 you were able to cobble together. What?

Chances are, the local Rotary Club has no idea that their generosity, meant to benefit you, is really helping the college. Not what either a financially strapped student or a generous private donor had envisioned.

Outrageous you say? Somebody should do something? Well, according to an article by Stephen Burd in NewAmerica EdCentral, the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates have introduced bills this year to bar public colleges and universities from engaging in such award displacement. According to Burd, that effort has been spearheaded by a Maryland non-profit group, Central Scholarship, who provides over $1 million in scholarships and interest free loans to students so they can attend college and graduate school.

According to Burd, the folks who administer the program seek to justify award displacement by saying at the end of the day they have a responsibility to direct their aid money to students with the greatest need. This argument seems a bit disingenuous to me, and apparently to Maryland legislators as well. This award displacement practice actually hurts the low income students these donors are trying to help. Generous donors are often clueless that their generosity ends up helping the institution and not the needy student.

If the legislation becomes law, Maryland would become the first state in the country to ban the practice of award displacement. On one level, that fact seems hard to believe. Do you know what colleges and universities in your state practice award displacement? Maybe it’s time to ask some hard questions.

This leads to the broader question of why do we as a nation continue to make financing a higher education so challenging? We profess to value education and wanting an educated America, yet our actions speak louder than our words as we continue to make it difficult for students trying to finance an education while they are in school and after they finish.

The increasing student loan debt, estimated at over $1 trillion with over 11% of that 90 days past due, seems, unfortunately, to be a logical fallout from award displacement. You get hammered trying to afford college going through it and again when you are trying to pay your loans off after you finish. We need to ask why terms made available for student loan debt repayment for young people just getting started in life are intentionally worse than the generous terms we make available to the financial institutions that only a few short years ago nearly brought this nation to financial ruin. What we profess as values and how that manifests itself in real life continue to be totally at odds.

Why do we continue to let special interest groups, lobbyists, and politicians put our next generations in such an untenable situation? Sure, some of us had some student loan debt when we finished years ago, but nothing approaching the crippling debt that will limit what is possible for the next generation of home buyers, consumers, and young parents who will want a college education for their own children.

Ironically, and sadly, it is the same generations that benefitted from the GI Bill and low college tuitions that are now the leaders making the laws that are negatively impacting this next generation of college students. Do not our current political leaders who benefited from a country that truly recognized the value of higher education affordability have that same moral obligation to our next generation of college students? What should that moral obligation look like? Should it perhaps look like no award displacement or stifling student loan debt?

Current Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks often of the importance of making college free. While his critics roll their eyes, other countries find a way to make it happen. Whether we get to that place or not, if we’re serious about valuing affordable higher education for our young people, we need real systemic changes to make that happen. Let’s start by eliminating award displacement and offering student loan repayment terms that say we know you are our future, we value you, and you are going to be treated fairly. Or, we could dare to be remarkable by making student loan repayment terms even more favorable than the terms we continue to provide to those same financial institutions that brought this country to its financial knees in 2008.

America needs a better memory and a working moral compass.

Raising The Presidential Bar For Hillary Clinton – It’s What We Do.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore
Did you watch the ninth debate between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders this past week in advance of the upcoming New York primary? At it’s conclusion, there were the usual pundits trying to tell us apparently uninformed listeners/viewers – what we had just heard and watched. As usual, I turned them off.

I noticed Bernie Sanders again railed on and on about Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street speeches, how much she was paid, and how this clearly meant she had been bought. But when pressed to provide one example, one, of how this actually influenced anything Clinton had done, Bernie Sanders could not provide a single example. Does that seem odd to you? Sanders implies Clinton has been bought but than can’t give one example to back it up?

When Hillary Clinton had been asked in other settings why she took these large speaking fees (all legal and when she was not serving in public office as I understand the facts) she responded with “because that’s what they offered to pay me.” So do we change the rules if we think money has too much influence? What a novel idea. Voters have been demanding that be done for years but those in power run from the idea – because that might mean changing the rules that help them maintain their power.

Hillary Clinton spoke of being in the Mideast in her role as Secretary of State, and negotiating agreements, showing an understanding of what it took to get the parties to a common ground. She appeared to me to be schooling Bernie Sanders on the difference between telling people what they needed to do, as he seemed inclined to do, and actually having real life experience being part of the process on an international stage – doing the work. It looked to me as if Clinton better understood the nuance required to get that delicate work done. You can’t do it alone as Sanders seems to think “his” revolution can do. Nuance matters.

Did you also notice Hillary Clinton intentionally and unilaterally lifting up the magnitude of the issue surrounding a woman’s right to choose and have autonomy over her own body? I did. Was Clinton right to be pissed about this being something that nobody has asked questions about in any of the nine debates? She seemed to me to be properly outraged. Doesn’t that speak volumes about our white male dominated culture that continues to treat women as second class citizens?

We seem to have the penultimate example of that in how Hillary Clinton continues to be treated as the lone female presidential candidate who is inching closer to becoming the first women president in our history. This is new territory for our country and our political old boys’ club is bound and determined to begrudgingly go there in fits and starts, and with Hillary Clinton’s bar set higher than the bar is set for Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or John Kasich. Yet we struggle mightily to admit this, preferring to manufacture reasons why Hillary Clinton is supposedly less trustworthy than the other male presidential candidates or possesses some other disqualifying unique character flaw. Perhaps we are part of her problem.

When I heard both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton speak at an event in St. Paul earlier this year I was struck by the difference. Clinton sounded more presidential, with a nuanced grasp of the incremental changes that are possible when folks work together. She conveyed a remarkably deeper understanding than Sanders of the complexity of the world stage. Sanders sounded at times more like the angry uncle telling you how bad things were and how he alone had the answers. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton spoke of his time as a U.S. Senator and how he was seated right next to then Senator Clinton. Dayton said Senator Clinton was the hardest working senator he knew. She did the leg work to get hard things done.

Would Hillary Clinton face the same level of intense and over the top scrutiny if she were a male candidate running for president? I really doubt it. Does that mean she gets a free pass? Of course not.

But we owe it to ourselves as a country to at least be honest about where we are putting the bar for the male presidential candidates and the bar for Hillary Clinton. They are not at equal levels. Can the United States, a country that continues to have male dominated leadership working aggressively in 2016 to turn back time on a woman’s right to choose and still disagreeing about equal pay for equal work possibly be objective and fair in evaluating whether a woman should be the next leader of the free world?

Maybe the time has come to change the course of history in this country. Many think Hillary Clinton should be the Democratic nominee and next president because she’s the most qualified, not because she’s a woman. What would we think if any male presidential candidate of either party boasted her impressive credentials? There’s no doubt electing the first woman president in 2016 would be revolutionary, changing the conversations in ways that many of us males have never even imagined. That is exactly the point.