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Belmont Club

By Rights

February 9th, 2012 - 1:25 pm

Michelle Singletary at the Washington Post says that whether or not America achieves President Obama’s goal to “once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” depends on how much the taxpayer is willing to spend. “To reach Obama’s goal, we have to decide, as a matter of public policy, whether college is a right or a privilege.”

She believes it is a right. Otherwise only the rich will be able to go to college in this era of rising educational costs. Singletary writes:

There are those who will decry even asking if college is a right or a privilege. Nonetheless, the question must be asked and answered.

If going to college is a right and vital to our nation’s economic standing, then government will have to do more to make it affordable for all. If it’s a privilege, only the nation’s wealthiest families will one day be able to send their children to college. Or are we damning a large percentage of our citizens to burdensome student loans, leaving them to conclude college isn’t worth it?

But if Singletary were to reflect, what she probably means is that the lifestyle that graduation from college is meant to afford is what she desires as a right. What is the point of making a college education a “right” if it doesn’t make an economic difference? One of the “we are the 99 percenters” recently held up a hand-lettered sign which complained that all her master’s degree qualified her for was work as a housekeeper.

The Right to be Unemployable

What Singletary probably wants as a “right” is guaranteed access to a car, house, and all the goodies which were once correlated with attending tertiary education. A worthless degree isn’t much of a right. It is hardly a “privilege.”

There are other rights too, such as the right to decent housing, that society is supposed to provide. After mandating “affordable housing” under Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federal government is now engaged in paying banks to keep from foreclosing homes. “More good California-based news for President Barack Obama: Bank of America Corp. has become the first large mortgage provider in the Golden State to take part in a federally funded ‘Keep Your Home’ program that would pay banks to reduce the balances that struggling California homeowners owe them.”

After the bubble burst, I recall asking a friend where all the money went as million-dollar tract houses lost half their value. He laughed, and pointed to his new RV — a reminder of how prevalent it was for Californians to view their quickly appreciating houses as piggy banks. No doubt, predatory lenders engaged in fraudulent practices during the price run-up, but there’s much more to this story than that storyline. …

Virtually every aspect of the lending process is governed by federal rules, so it’s nonsensical to argue that the banks were unregulated. Our political leaders seem to be forgetting, also, that it was direct government policy to arm-twist banks into giving out loans to unqualified buyers. The Community Reinvestment Act scored banks based on the number of loans they provided to low-income people.

As John McClaughry wrote in Reason magazine in December, “By 1995 the CRA had become a powerful tool in the hands of ACORN and allied activist organizations,” referring to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. “Unless a bank could silence their protests by making (and passing on to Fannie Mae) the demanded amount of subprime loans, it faced serious difficulties in obtaining regulatory approval for branching, merging, and other corporate decisions.”

This stemmed from an ideology, supported in Republican as well as Democratic circles, that viewed homeownership as the key to a prosperous life. In pricey California, lenders — and governments, which often offered residents down-payment assistance and low-interest loans — got ever more creative so that they could help buyers afford median home prices that soared above $600,000 in many urban markets.

The trouble was that, like a college education, home ownership was partly the consequence and not the cause of middle class earning power and work habits. A diploma and mortgage did not bestow the characteristics of a winner on its recipients. People who could never pass a rigorous tertiary educational course or pay off a mortgage couldn’t do so even with government “help.” It just pushed them in over their heads.

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