Tag Archives: Polarization

Monday”s Mtg: How Important Is White Male Privilege?

Calling out people for being clueless about privilege – usually their White, male privilege – is common these days. Doing so often provokes puzzlement and/or an angry if not furious response, which leads to a frustrated counter-response. Dialogue, much less actually learning something about oneself or society, becomes impossible.

But, understanding what is and is not meant by “check your privilege” is important, whether or not you think there is much to it.  Arguably, disagreement about who is privileged today and who has a right to feel aggrieved was one of the biggest factors in Donald Trump’s shocking from reality TV star to the President-elect. Based on my reading and personal experience, I think that Trump’s election was, well, personal to White American men in a way no other election result in my lifetime has been. A lot of people are saying that this man became president out of nowhere represents either a –

  • Restoration of a White, male-dominated social order, or an
  • Angry reaction to the false accusations of racism and of White, male privilege.

Tough stuff. Aaron L. suggested that Civilized Conversation might be one of the few venues in which people could discuss this awkward topic in a reasonably productive way. Certainly, we can try.

I think the key to civility on this topic is understanding what the assertion of White privilege (and gender privilege) means and what it does not mean. The articles below, especially the first two, explain the term. Spoiler and key point: Crying “privilege” is not an accusation of racist intent or of a personal failing of character. It’s an observation about one’s relative place in a social order, and the advantages (big and small, lifelong and day-to-day) that some people have because of it and others don’t have.

My idea for our meeting is ambitious. I hope we can explore what White, male, privilege means to people that use the term, and what it means to people that feel so offended by its use. We also can get into the actual evidence that White male privilege still is a potent force in our society and the implications for public policy and personal behavior.

We should have a new topic list of Feb – May to hand out on Monday, thanks to Rich and Aaron (The Elder, not Aaron L., Son of Bruce) . It will be Trumptastic.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

What is “White male privilege?”

Evidence and Rebuttals –

Trump and White male privilege –

NEXT WEEK:   President Trump’s Priorities.

Monday’s Mtg: Who Is To Blame for Donald Trump?

My God.  It can happen here.  And now it has.  Why will be debated for decades. How did Donald Trump easily win the Republican Party nomination for president and garner enough of the popular vote (48%) in the right combination of states to pull off an Electoral College victory against Hillary Clinton?

We’d better come up with an answer fast, because already we are seeing the normalization of Trump by political and Media elites. In a way, what else can they do?  Trump is now the president-elect, chosen in a constitutionally-legitimate election. Yet, history will ask us how, in 2016, we elected the presidential candidate that ran on a platform of using governmental power to ethnically cleanse the country, jail his enemies, retaliate against the press, blackmail our allies, and literally wall us off from the rest of the world – and not the candidate that violated administrative procedures in her government email account.

Before it hardens into conventional wisdom that Donald Trump lies within the normal range of American political and Constitutional norms, I think we owe it to our children to ask who bears the most responsibility for all that is to come.  To me, the comforting answer – “a mere 4% of the voters [compared to Obama’s 2012 performance] plus the antique Electoral College” – is inadequate.

We also must avoid other easy answers.  In a razor close election, any single factor can be cited as being “the” reason for the outcome.  If only 5,000 people in Ohio had voted for Nixon instead of Kennedy, or 600 in Florida for Gore, etc.  I’m talking about something larger.  What made 50+ million Americans desparate enough to take such a gamble on Trump, and to ignore his obvious odious unfitness for office?  Below are some articles,  some pre-election, some post, that takes stabs at explaining it.

ALSO: I am not inclined to continue my participation in Civilized Conversation in the future. The very name is now a mockery of what our country is soon to become – and maybe what it has been all along. I don’t think I can bear having to prepare every week to review the latest developments in our self-destruction. Also, it’s been 10 years for me now, which is a long time to do what I do in this group 50 times per year.

I will open the meeting on Monday with a discussion of where, if anywhere, CivCon should go next.  Then, on to greater horrors.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Monday’s Mtg: How Far Left Will the Democratic Party Move?

Well, the Democrats seem united, and with a clear strategy, too. As you know, it’s pretty typical for a party’s presidential nominee to tack to the center after the convention. But, it seems the Dems really are going to try to take advantage of the GOP nominating a nut job for president by moving both leftward and rightward at the same time.

As everybody knows, Bernie Sanders’ surprising success resulted in a party platform that is farther to the left than it has been in living memory. As we’ll discuss on Monday, it’s generational changeover that are driving this bus. Millennials are very liberal (or just incoherent?), on both social and economic issues. The Republican Party has no idea how to appeal to young people and the Dems are trying to cement their loyalty for a generation.

But, the Dem convention made it crystal clear (in that showy and repetitive way party conventions do) that Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party wants to expand the Obama coalition, not just replicate it. They are making a play to peel off college-educated White moderate voters from the GOP, a group that’s been loyal to the latter since roughly the Reagan era. If they can pull it off over a few back-to-back elections, the Democrats will have pulled off a rare, historic political realignment that could last decades.

Except…how can the Democrats go in both directions at once? Even if they do so successfully this electoral cycle, can it last? Can the Dems satisfy the growing progressive sentiments of Democratic voters and pick off the low hanging fruit of an increasingly extremist GOP without flying apart from the internal contradictions?

I suggest we grope for tentative answers to these questions the same basic way we did last week when we discussed the future of the Republican Party. In brief opening remarks, I will try to lay out how the basic building blocks of the Democratic Party are changing: Its leadership, institutions, and voting blocs. The “emerging Democratic majority” that was confidently predicted in a well-known 1999 book hasn’t actually emerged in a stable form. But, it might, helped along in the near-term by Trump and in the longer-term by other factors that created Trump (last week’s discussion) and within the Democratic Party (this week’s).

Obviously, the future is too contingent to predict with much confidence. But, I think we can have another great discussion like the one we had picking over the GOP’s bleached bones last week.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What does “progressive” mean right now? Policies: Econ + social issues? Rhetoric? Abstract beliefs like size/reach of govt? Inclusiveness? Exclusiveness?
    –> Is Left/Right too simple a way to describe our politics, or at least many voters?
  2. How liberal are Dem right now, in terms of their (1) elected officials and (2) voters? Has the Party really been moving rapidly leftwards recently?
  3. If so (or if not), why? Leaders, institutions, voters, events?
  4. Is it permanent?
    –>  Will the forces moving Dems leftwards last? Will new trends emerge?
    –>   What about countervailing forces, including the GOP response?
    –>  If Dem coalition gets bigger, must it get more centrist?
  5. Ought: What do you think the Democrats should do (morally + strategically)?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Movement leftwards so far –

  • On economics, both Obama and Dem electorate have moved left.
  • Conservative POV: Really, really left on everything.
  • Wrong. As this graph shows, Dem elected officials even in the House have moved only a little left since 1980. It is House Republicans that moved far to the right.

The future Democratic Party will be…

Next Week (Aug 8):  Is Obamacare working?  What comes next?

Monday’s Mtg: Trump & Sanders – What Does Populism Mean Now?

Everyone is talking about the return of populism to American politics in light of Donald Trump’s astonishing primary victory and Bernie Sanders’ near-miss. But, there is some sloppy use of the term, even in the elite media. Many commentators seem to say “populist” when they just mean “popular.” Many ignore important differences between left-wing and right-wing populisms and democratic versus authoritarian populisms. I find this to be a shocking dereliction of their duty.

Of course, populist appeals are not just those that work really well on regular people. The term has a specific meaning historically. In the words of one of the links, populism

…generally refers to a rhetorical style that seeks to mobilize “the people” as a social or political force. Populism can move to the left or right. It can be tolerant or intolerant. It can promote civil discourse and political participation or promote scapegoating, demagoguery, and conspiracism. Populism can oppose the status quo and challenge elites to promote change, or support the status quo to defend “the people” against a perceived threat by elites or subversive outsiders.

The point is that populism defines The People and fingers The Guilty Elites. But, historically, left-wing and right-wing populisms in America do this very differently.  (I think neither is inherently democratic or undemocratic, or at least I used to). Sanders and Trump continue this sharp difference. Both men and their movements have starkly divergent ideas about who are the oppressed people and who are their oppressors. And, despite some loose talk about their alleged substantive similarities, Bernie and the Beast have radically different ideas on what to do about it.

Now, the broader impact these two men and their revolutions (or “revolutions”) will have on our politics will be on Civilized Conversation’s radar for a long time. We will meet on the future of the Republican and Democratic parties right after their nominating conventions.  July 25 = GOP, August 1 = Dems). But, I think the populist revival is not a flash in the pan in the USA or elsewhere, so I thought modern populism merited its own evening in our spotlight.

On Monday, I will open our meeting with some brief remarks on the differences between left-wing and right-wing populism in the United States and a (very!) quick summary of the major populist features of both Bernie and Trump. Then, we can have a wide-ranging discussion of whatever’s on your minds, including, I hope, the following tough questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What has populism meant, historically? Have American versions of populism had unique characteristics?
  2. What is the difference between populism and…
    1. Popularity (mass appeal) in a democracy?
    2. Pandering?
    3. Scapegoating?
  3. Right-wing versus left-wing populisms: How do they differ, specifically?
    1. Underlying world views?
    2. Who they appeal to (“us”) and target as the enemy  (“them”)?
    3. Their solutions?
  4. Populism versus authoritarianism: When does populism expand democracy versus threaten it?
  5. Sanders and Trump: How populist are their
    1. Rhetoric
    2. Policies?
  6. How lasting will their “revolutions” be on GOP/Dems?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  Lots, so pick and choose.

ABCs of American Populism:

International Comparisons:

Trump and Right Wing Populism’s Future:

Bernie and Left-Wing Populism’s Future:

Next Week: Brexit – What if the U.K. votes on June 23 to leave the E.U.?

Monday’s Mtg: Is Americans’ Trust In Each Other Declining?

“Social trust” is a term sociologists use for the confidence we all have in each other within the social networks that comprise our everyday lives. Social trust is the lubricant that allows communities to function and thus one of the glues that holds societies together. If we trust other members of our social networks we’ll do business with them, respect their interests, work with them to maintain our community, join civic organizations with them, and trust them when they hold cultural and political power over us. Social trust is vital in developing our “social capital,” the good will, sympathy, and connections in our communities that we can (reciprocally! use to our advantage.  High levels of social trust/social capital leads to better lives, stronger communities and a more united nation.

Okay, maybe I’ve been reading too much Sociology for Dummies. Still, a lot of observers are really worried that Americans’ trust in each other is falling apart. The political polarization that we talk about a lot is just one part of it. On Monday I will explain in a little more detail what I mean. I’ll lay out why experts think social trust is so important and whether/why we may be losing ours.

Here are some targeted discussion questions to ponder and a little basic reading on social trust.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. CONCEPTS: What is social trust? What are its components and how is its level measured? How does it relate to social capital?
  2. IMPORTANCE: Why does social trust matter? Historically, who has had high/low levels of it in America? What do individuals and societies lack when social trust is low?
  3. DECLINED? Has our social trust fallen? Evidence?
  4. WHY? What caused the fall? Is it rational or irrational (are people less trustworthy?), cause or effect (of other problems like rising inequality or higher immigration), temporary or enduring?
  5. EFFECTS:
    1. INSTITUTIONS: Trust in most major U.S. institutions (govt, big biz, news media, etc.) has collapsed. Is this related to falling social trust?
    2. POLITICS: Is falling trust a cause or effect of our political polarization and paralysis?
  6. FUTURE: Will social trust keep declining? Could the internet reverse that?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Would a female president govern differently?

Monday’s Mtg: Could American Democracy Unravel?

Okay, maybe I’m reaching on this one. When I google phrases like “is American democracy collapsing” I get either Socialist Workers Party-type left-wing screeds or Obama’s FEMA army is coming for your guns right-wing stuff. But, an avowed White supremacist con-man has been the leading candidate for president of one of our two major political parties for seven months. Our national legislature is as dysfunctional as at any time since Fort Sumter. The middle class keeps hollowing out. Something’s wrong.

But, can we say that the system failing us lately augurs something much worse, like a devolution into some kind of non-functioning failed state or – maybe worse – a softly-authoritarian super-state? Many countries have the forms of democracy without the substance. Are we really immune?

To me, our first step on Monday should be to explore what we think American democracy is supposed to be like when it’s functioning properly. How does it determine the public interest, mediate between conflicting demands on govt resources, and self-correct? We also have to avoid getting carried away. There’s no military coup in our future, almost certainly. Nor are we likely, IMO, to discard the basic outer forms of democracy, like elections and a free press. And, yes, every generation has worried U.S. democracy will fall apart unless it does what the complainer wants. We’re pretty resilient pessimists.

The thing is: Sometimes the pessimists have been right to worry. Our democratic system was bent and broke or nearly broke over slavery, Reconstruction, Robber Baron excesses, labor rights and violence, the Great Depression, and the fight over ending segregation, to name just the most obvious ones.  Today, people are worried over whether our democracy is flexible enough to handle a bunch of intersecting/interrelated problems:

  • Rising economic inequality and concentrated wealth with unlimited access to the political system.
  • A broken Republican Party.
  • An increasingly extreme GOP, bent on changing the electoral rules (voter suppression laws, weakening “1 person 1 vote,” completely deregulating campaign finance laws, gerrymandering, etc.) to lock in its advantages.
  • Polarized voters that live in different news/public affairs factual universes.
  • A growing dependence (conservative POV) on govt programs for peoples’ livelihood. In this theory, the addicted masses will just keep voting to make govt larger and larger until it becomes a tyranny of the majority that destroys the economy.
  • Growing racial and immigration tensions.
  • Creeping presidential power due to Obama’s contempt for democracy, or congressional paralysis, or legitimate anti-terrorism needs, or what have you.

Hmmm. I guess we need to dissect the question before we attempt an answer. I will list some of the IMO less-than-nutty worries about the health of American democracy in my brief opening remarks and then we can see where this goes.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. OUGHT: What is American democracy supposed to be like? Whose interest should it serve and how well does it adapt to new conditions and self-correct?
  2. IS: What has gone wrong recently that might be different from our usual political/social turmoil? Why? What’s the connection between democracy’s health and (a) a healthy economy, (b) social peace versus rapid change, (c) conflicts between elite and group and public interests, and (d) intermediating institutions (like the news media)?
  3. MIGHT BE: What does it mean to have the forms/institutions of democracy but not the function/actual democracy? Is USA immune?
  4. ARGUMENTS/EVIDENCE: Who really worries democracy is at risk? What specific evidence/arguments do they offer? Persuasive??
  5. HISTORY LESSON: How has U.S. politics righted the ship in past times of great doubt about our democracy?  (Depression, Robber Baron era, etc.)
  6. SIGNS TO LOOK FOR: If the pessimists are right, what signs should we look for? What does the GOP civil war augur?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Do neoconservatives still control GOP foreign policy?

Monday’s Mtg: Who Broke Congress? Can It Be Fixed?

The Constitution made Congress the preeminent branch of the federal government. Even in an age of an imperial presidency, our govt was not designed to function with a paralyzed national legislature.

Yet, we have had one for many years now. Congressional dysfunction began to grow to dangerous levels in the 1990s, as our two main political parties polarized and as the Gingrichian philosophy of treating routine politics as Manichean warfare migrated from the House to the Senate. Yet, even then Congress still was able to perform most of its basic functions most of the time: Passing annual an budget, enacting new laws and needed amendments to old laws, confirming executive and judicial nominees, ratifying treaties, overseeing the executive branch, etc.

On January 20, 2009, that changed too. In a strategy unprecedented in American history, the Republican Party decided the day Barack Obama took office to paralyze Congress completely so as to deny him any chance to pass any of his agenda. Universal filibusters. Refusing for months or years to confirm routine nominees. Negotiating in bad faith and refusing to follow established legislative procedures. Manufacturing budget and debt payment crises and using them to blackmail the president and the country. Non-existent or sham oversight of federal agencies. I could go on and on about the details, and I just might at our meeting.

The non-partisan part of my point is an uncomfortable one to face. Our democracy’s smooth functioning depends less on formal laws or rules or checks and balances than it does on the willingness of our politicians to value the institutions they serve; accept the other side’s legitimacy when they lose elections; and follow informal rules and norms of conduct when they govern, including simple self-restraint.

Obama has used executive power to get around some of this total obstruction. As we’ve discussed, this poses a problem in and of itself. Still, I consider congressional paralysis to be one of the worst problems of our political age. I’ve made sure we talk about it periodically; e.g., 2015 (Who runs the GOP?), 2014 (Can our political system still solve problems?), 2013 and 2012 (GOP congressional brinkmanship), and even six years ago in 2009 (What’s wrong with Congress?)

Why do it again? Because we have entered an even more dangerous stage of democratic deterioration. The Republican Party is now itself broken and that has made Congers doubly-dysfunctional. Since at least 2014, a rump faction in the House, egged on by talk radio and others, has routinely used the same brinkmanship and blackmail tactics on its own leadership. The House “Freedom Caucus’s” demands cost Speaker John Boehner his job and, as I write, his successor Paul Ryan is desperately trying to prevent another govt shutdown on December 11.

Is this our new normal? How can the leading country in the world disable its own national legislature? Can something be done to fix The Broken Branch?  On Monday, I’ll go over some of the competing diagnoses for what is driving this car wreck, and then I’ll list a few of the possible solutions. Not all of them involve just changing which politicians and party control Washington.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What do people mean when they say Congress is broken/dysfunctional? How is “broken” different from “not doing what [insert speaker] wants?”
  2. Why has this happened? Is it a problem of leadership, rank and file members, political parties, interest groups, the news media, or voters?
  3. How is congressional dysfunction related to our broader political struggles, like partisan polarization and the rise of Trumpism?
  4. What can be done to repair our national legislature?
  5. What if Congress can’t be fixed or isn’t fixed? How will we be able to govern ourselves and cooperate to solve national problems?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Congress’ role –

What Broken Means –

  • Basic problem. Or, try this explanation.  Either recommended if you don’t know basic story.
  • UPDATE a must-read: Oversight of executive branch activities is one of Congress’s most vital functions.  But the GOP disgracefully formed a special committee to “investigate” the Benghazi attacks and mutated it into a smear committee that’s sole purpose was to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton.  This is one of the most disgraceful abuses of power in congressional historyA must read.

Causes –

Solutions (??) –

Next Week: Is their a constitutional right to privacy?

Monday’s Mtg: Assessing Bill Clinton’s Presidency

By my count, Bill Clinton – our 42nd president and possible future First Gentleman – will be the seventh presidency our group has evaluated. We’ve done Jackson, Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Obama’s first term. We also debated the best and worst presidents and the power of the office itself. The topic of George W. Bush’s tenure may have come up a few times, too, but my mind’s a blank.

We already know that Bill Clinton never will be on Mount Rushmore. He fought no major American wars nor battled any terrible economic catastrophes. He had to share power with his Republican tormentors and with some conservative Democrats. So, he spent most of his presidency compromising and triangulating. Conservatives despised him and progressives distrusted him.

Yet, Bill Clinton’s presidency was a consequential one. Moreover, he left office still popular, scholars are ranking him in the top 10 all-time presidents (!) these days, and his wife is running implicitly on a platform to bring back her husband’s era’s widely-shared prosperity. I also think we need to rethink Clinton’s presidency in light of 14 years of post-Bill perspective.

As I indicated last meeting, I will open Monday by listing the major accomplishments, good and bad, of President Bill Clinton. Then, I’ll take a brief stab at providing some context I think might be helpful to us in evaluating his presidency (and, maybe his wife’s?)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What was Clinton elected to do? What did he promise to do?
  2. Achievements: What was accomplished during the Clinton years in terms of:
    • Domestic policy,
    • Foreign policy,
    • Politics (building an enduring political movement and coalition)?
  3. Evaluating him:
    • Context: How were the domestic and international contexts within which he operated different from todays?
    • Credit: Does Clinton deserve all of the credit/blame for these achievements, or do others share both?
    • Standards: By what standards was Clinton judged at the time? How might those standards be different today?
  4. So, how good or bad a president was Bill Clinton?
  5. Any lessons for how Hillary would or should govern if elected?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Cry, Robot. Will technology revolutionize the nature of work?

Monday’s Mtg: Who Runs the Republican Party?

Congressional leaders and state-level elected officials. Tea Party networks. Neocons, Theocons, and Reformicons (I’ll explain). Fox News and the rest of the conservative news-entertainment complex. Upscale libertarian voters. Downscale white working class voters. Southerners. Westerners. Big corporations and rich donors. The Republican National Committee and other formal party groups. “Shadow party” organizations controlled by the Koch brothers and other super-wealthy donors. Ted Cruz. Jeb Bush. Scott Walker. Rush Limbaugh. John Boehner (just kidding).

You get the idea. How can we possibly understand who’s in charge of the Republican Party? Political scientists have spent decades studying how American political parties function and they still disagree (academic paper, pdf) about how decisions get made. In a way, it’s an especially bad time to ask who’s running the GOP, since it’s had no president for six years, 25+ potential 2016 nominees, and a congressional leadership that cannot even control their caucus, much less anything larger.

Still, the 2014 election gave the Republican Party a lot of power, about as much as a party get without holding the presidency. The GOP controls Congress and more than one-half of all state governments. They have vast amounts of money, their own news media, and they are united ideologically (mostly). I think it’s a great time to debate who is setting the Party’s agenda and priorities.

I am not particularly well-versed on the polysci of how our parties operate, and ‘m having trouble finding good links on the subject. Still, I am working on it and on Monday I’ll open with a few remarks on the subject that I hope will help us to understand how different actors influence what the GOP stands for. Then, we can discuss whatever.

Note: I feel that some of our meetings have been a little unfocused lately. So, I’m going to try a little harder to keep us on topic this time. The topic is who runs the GOP and how that may be changing, not what do we think of conservative ideology. I’m going to crack down on people giving long history lessons and personal anecdotes, too.

Note II: A lot of links, but not much yet on the (1) polysci or (2) conservative POV.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. HOW: What does it mean to “run” or “control” a major American political party? How is that attempted and accomplished (e.g., via organizing, activism, money, promoting popular ideas, control of the news media, etc.)?
  2. WHO: What are the major factions in the Republican Party these days? On what do they agree and disagree?
  3. WHICH: Which faction has the most influence? Why? Are any major disagreements unresolved or finessed?
  4. TODAY: So, what does the Republican Party stand for? Has that changed recently? Was it because of new forces, or just the waxing and waning of old factions?
  5. TOMORROW: Will the factional balance of power within change? How? How will losing or winning the 2016 election contribute?
  6. How do conservative and liberal answers to these questions differ? Can we learn anything from the other side’s answers?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Who controls the GOP?

Which faction dominates?

Which Individuals Matter Most?

Next Week: What can science tell us about Good and Evil?

Monday’s Mtg: For-Profit Colleges – Market Niche or Scam?

The Obama Administration’s higher education policies are among its least well-known. But, they’re a big deal and about to get bigger. Yesterday we learned that Obama will announce in his State of the Union address an ambitious new proposal to expand Americans’ access to community college.

The new program’s goal will be to make going to community college basically tuition-free! In participating states, the feds would pay ¾ of the costs (which average over $3,000 per year) and participating state governments the other ¼. Not only would this be revolutionary, it would seriously affect the fate of for-profit colleges, the subject of our discussion this week. Going to a for-profit college (like Strayer, University of Phoenix, ITT, etc.) is one of the main alternatives to community college, so this proposal is basically an assault on this controversial industry.

Another accidentally well-timed CivCon topic! But really, even without this announcement, for-profit higher education has been a huge issue for a long time. Obama has been trying to reign in abuses in the industry for years, bitterly opposed at all stages by Republican Congress. I’m just finishing up a book that deals with all of these issues, too, so we have a lot to discuss.

The private, for-profit college industry has exploded in size in the last 20 years, and it’s grown much more controversial, too. The number of for-profits has quadrupled since 1993, to over 1,200, and the number of students they enroll has grown by 80-fold, to 13% of all college students. Some of them are gigantic, highly-profitable nationwide, NYSE-listed, companies. They are advertised on TV and radio around the clock.

The controversy involves a for-profit education’s very high cost to students and the government via student loan defaults, and seroious questions about the quality of the education they provide. These schools charge much more than all but the most expensive private but non-profit universities (like Cal-Tech or the Ivies). And, close to 100% of for-profit college students borrow from federal student loan programs to pay their tuition (average $32,000). Yet, they default at much higher rates than other students. This default rate and other evidence suggests that students may not get a high-quality education for all of that money they, and we as taxpayers, fork over. Most studies show graduates of for-profit colleges earn less than other graduates, too, although it’s not a slam dunk that poor instruction is the reason.

I want to do a lot more on Monday, however, than bash for-profit colleges and the (mostly GOP) politicians that defend to the death everything they do. Defenders of the for-profits raise some important points. They say our higher education system does a poor job of educating just the kinds of students they specialize in educating: Non-traditional students, especially those that are low-income; older, with jobs and even kids; and first-in-their-families college students. Strayer and Grand Canyon are just innovators using the private sector to do what our political system won’t do. They enroll students quickly, offer flexible class schedules and more on-line classes, and vocationally-oriented curricula in growing fields like health care and information systems.

I’m dubious this is true on a large scale. Still, my point is that there are many bigger issues here. The discussion questions below list a number of them. I’ll start our meeting as I usually do, by explaining a few basic facts about the for-profit college industry, the reasons it has grown so quickly, and the main controversies surrounding it.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. History as a guide: What is the history of federal government support for going to college or trade school? Were for-profit schools always a problem, and if so, what was done about it that we could learn from today?
  2. Recently: Why has the for-profit college industry exploded in size in the last 20 years? Was it just marketing hype chasing all of that federal money?
  3. Prosecution: What are the worst problems/abuses of for-profit colleges?
  4. Defense: What arguments are used to defend the industry? Does it serve a legitimate market niche, even if poorly? If they serve students poorly and bury them in debt, why do so many students go there?
  5. Solutions: How has the Obama Administration tried to reign in the industry’s worst abuses? Why has it been so hard to do, and what does that tell us about how and how well our political system functions?

LINKS –

Problems with for-profit colleges –

The Other Side –

Solutions –

Next Week: Are we an over-medicated nation?