Sam Uretsky

Obligations are Negotiable

When US News & World Report ranks colleges, one of the factors they consider is the percentage of graduates who donate to their alma mater. This, they explain, is an indirect measure of student satisfaction. Very indirect. If donations are a measure of quality, a school could move up a notch or two by dropping its programs in elementary education and library science.

It’s basic — there is no direct correlation between the cost of an education and the career it prepares you for. According to BusinessWeek magazine, a 2008 graduate with an MBA could expect to start at $104,000. In contrast, the web site, reports that a nurse practitioner with an M.S.N. would probably draw $67,407. That still beats a high school teacher with an M.Ed., where the national average is about $43,000. It’s true that this hasn’t been a very good year for MBAs, but it hasn’t been all that great for teachers or nurses either. Los Angeles plans to terminate 2,300 teachers and New York City has warned that without Federal stimulus money, it may have to fire 15,000 teachers. Nurses do a bit better. The nursing shortage helps assure that RNs can find jobs, but the jobs no longer offer any real security. Hospitals run in cycles, trying to decide whether they need a balanced budget (fire people) or run a quality operation (hire people).

Time was there was an implied social contract. You could aim for the top, try to get a job as a movie star, or become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The odds were against you, but if you made it, the payoff was impressive. The alternative was a job doing good stuff for low pay, but there was job security, and a reliable pension plan. The economic bust has changed things. The low paying jobs don’t offer anything in the way of security, and the pension plans are underfunded.

For teachers, things may be getting even worse, since there’s increased focus on teacher performance and efforts to do away with tenure. In some occupations, like sports and hedge-fund management, performance is easy to measure objectively. In teaching the measure is indirect, based on student performance on tests. This would be reasonable if quality classroom performance were the only variable in test performance. These days, when the economy, lower incomes and rising unemployment are forcing their way into the home lives of students, it’s asking a lot to expect improved test results from students whose families are dealing with the tensions of eviction or foreclosure, and where the faculty is also dealing with the emotional problems of furloughs and layoffs.

So, why should any rational person spend $100,000 to get qualified in an area where they have minimal chance of repaying their student loans? They don’t. The people who go into these fields may be dedicated, willing to accept a low salary in return for an emotionally rewarding career, but they’re not the poor innocents who were conned into taking no-down-payment mortgages. Many were induced to enroll in degree programs by state-sponsored student loan forgiveness programs, usually programs that offer financial assistance in return for working in-state, or in some cases, in rural areas — and now these programs are in jeopardy. The New York Times has been tracking the status of these programs, and of the states they’ve recorded, only Georgia and Missouri will guarantee their student loan forgiveness programs. Vermont has a program funded by a foundation, not so dependent on tax revenues. A few states have promised that cutbacks would apply only to new applicants, but those already in the program would get the promised benefit. Alabama ended its program for special education teachers in 2008. In Connecticut, a program to assist elementary and secondary school teachers is likely to lose funding in 2010, and teachers already in the program would be cut off. In Massachusetts, the legislature is considering taking back money that was paid into the fund in 2007.

When money’s tight and programs have to be cut, every program has its advocates. Even police and firefighters are facing layoffs, which may have an immediate effect on public safety, and are likely to start more protests than budget cuts aimed at libraries or museums. But somehow, breaking a promise to a nurse or teacher who has already borrowed money on the strength of the assurance that the state would help with the loan is in a category by itself. So, as a bit of investment advice, if any state wants to sell Moral Obligation Bonds, see how they treated their teachers and nurses — that may tell you all you need to know.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2009

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