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March 2013

Student Gov't Culture: Vote for Us, Now Shut Up

Ah, student government: that perennial stepping stone for proto-politicians and safety valve against student activism. While each campus' particular iteration is different, student government culture is surprisingly consistent across the country.

Disdain, in one form or another, for their fellow students can be found among SGA members at universities big and small. At first glance that seems curious: given the ratio of voters to elected officials, the numbers suggest that they should be some of our most democratic, responsive institutions. The size of a Congressional House district is roughly 700,000 people. In comparison, the largest public university in the U.S. (Arizona State University) has barely over 60,000 students.

This disdain manifests itself in many ways. Often we'll hear it when SGA members complain about perpetually low voter turnout and "student apathy." Other times it presents as a startling suspicion and paranoia. For example, a year ago the student government at Harvard Law School actually debated whether to make its own budget available to the student body (they chose not to):

In a general meeting on Wednesday night, Student Government tabled a discussion about disclosing its own budget to the public so that members could have more time to create and review samples of what such disclosure would look like. Some student government members expressed concerns that such disclosure would subject Student Government to unfair scrutiny even though student government operated “leanly.” Other student government members said they would welcome the additional feedback such disclosure would invite. One said that transparency was a “question of principle.” In addition, many members agreed that there was not a “groundswell” among the general student body for disclosure, there was only one request for such disclosure in the last year. One member said that no other student organization discloses its budget, and it would be troublesome to provide a list of numbers without obtainable numbers on attendance or other such details.

That someone in student government thinks that showing what they do with student activity fee dollars would invite scrutiny they consider "unfair" is reason enough for anyone to demand to see the numbers. But such anti-democratic tendencies aren't limited to the Ivies, either.

At Emory University in Atlanta, there's a growing furor against its current President, James Wagner (here's a good recap). As the faculty prepares a vote of no-confidence, some SGA members wanted to include a confidence question on the ballot for their next student elections. The original text, reading "Do you have confidence in President James Wagner?" was modified to a more general "Do you have confidence in the direction of the University?" — but even that wasn't enough to garner a majority of SGA members.

The university's student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, reports the reason why:

Much of the opposition to the bill was rendered by undergraduate members of SGA, who claimed that the student body is not well informed enough to make a responsible decision.

This, of course, leads to an interesting question. If it is unacceptable for students to register how they feel about the direction of their own University — in a non-binding vote, essentially an opinion poll — how in the world is it acceptable for those same students to fill out the rest of the election ballot, which is full of choices that have actual consequences?

Elitist, anti-democratic attitudes among SGA members need to be demolished, destroyed, obliterated, and other fancy words for "blown up" — students already get more than enough patronizing condescension from faculty and administrators. The closest thing to a surefire method is introducing directly democratic and participatory structures and processes.

Student Loan Debt: The Really F*cking Scary Number Hidden in the NY Fed Report

There's been quite a bit of chatter about the latest report on student loan debt out by the New York Federal Reserve Board. You can check out a PDF of the findings here. All the bad numbers are up: the total amount of student loan debt, the number of students taking out loans, and the number of those who have stopped repayment. But there's one figure that I haven't seen many people in the news really highlight, and it's the scariest. It's also buried in the second half of the report.

First off, the expected bad news:

Everyone across age groups now has significantly more student loan debt

Chart of total student loan balances by age group


Student loan debt is the only kind of debt that's consistently increased during the recession:

Chart of student loan debt vs other debt


There are a ton more borrowers, and the amount they're borrowing has leaped as well:

Chart of student loan borrowers and balance per borrower


Now here comes the truly scary part you've been waiting for. Below is a pie chart of those who have student loans, and what their repayment status is.

Chart of student loan borrower repayment status delinquent

At first glance, the percentage of those with delinquent balances seems pretty bad — 17%, one in six — but not the end of the world. But as the report casually mentions later in the report, this chart is deceptive in that it includes people who are not expected to make a monthly payment: either they're in school, or have a deferment or forbearance. So if we take those people out of the equation (the blue and purple slices), that modest 17% becomes a gigantic 30%! Join me in the next paragraph, as I reiterate this for dramatic effect.


The Fed didn't create a pie chart highlighting this, so I went ahead and made one, because this is the number that shows how unsustainable our current system is. With other forms of debt, it's easy to see the breaking point: look at the bankruptcies. However, since Congress loves its Wall Street benefactors so much, student loan debt is (with very few exceptions) not dischargeable in bankruptcy. The 90+ day delinquency rate is the variable to watch for student debt.

Chart of student loan holders more than 90 days past due

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 If you haven't already begun organizing to wrench power away from those who are actively putting you in financial shackles, I reckon you ought to start.