Monday, November 29, 2004

A Great Idea Long Past Due

Robert Reich has a hell of an idea. Bob’s a bright guy, great company in a fishing boat and one of my favorite friends to have over for dinner.


Okay, I confess I don’t really know him personally, but if he was in a fishing boat you’d love his banter and maybe he’ll come to dinner one day and become my instant favorite. It’s possible---he was awarded the Vaclav Havel Vision Foundation prize for “pioneering work in economic and social thought” in 2003 and I live in the Czech Republic. That makes Vaclav and me almost neighbors, although he doesn’t come for dinner either.


Reich, at a recent conference, made the outrageously brilliant suggestion that college loans be funded differently from what they are (see article).  We seem to be the only advanced country in the world that gives so little encouragement to university education and yet makes it such an inescapable entry requirement to a good job. That puts a huge burden on kids and their families. Worse, in Reich’s view, it steers students into the necessity of taking high paying jobs at the expense of what they might otherwise choose if the loans weren’t so big.


How can you choose to teach or work in small-town America with $50-100,000 hanging over your head? Who can become a journalist, an artist or small businessman with such a load to carry? Not bloody many.


Reich’s idea is to establish a student-loan program (he suggests graduate school only) where the loans provided would be paid back by a small percentage of after-college salaries over a ten to fifteen year period. No matter the salary, all would pay the same percentage. Thus, presuming a $50,000 loan and a 7% repayment percentage (the figures are mine, not Reich’s), a lawyer grad at a big firm earning $80,000 would pay $466 a month and a teacher making $28,000 would cough up $163. Both of them pay the same number of years and the proceeds go into the program for re-lending.


How do you sell an idea like that to the big firm lawyer? On the basis of fairness. It’s fair, perhaps the fairest idea ever conceived, to encourage the educated to follow their hearts and idealisms into their working lives after university. Like most of the great ideas in the world, this one isn’t fully developed and the chances are it will be niggled to a still-birth. But it’s a great concept and as government increasingly cuts back on student support at all levels, we need some great concepts. Check out his web site.


Dinner is usually about eight, Bob.