After Divestment, What Comes Next for College Campuses?

May 20, 2015Torre Lavelle

From championing civil rights through Freedom Summer to fighting sexual assault, college students have long made a name for themselves as leaders of ideas, activism, and innovation.

From championing civil rights through Freedom Summer to fighting sexual assault, college students have long made a name for themselves as leaders of ideas, activism, and innovation. It should therefore come as no surprise that the fossil-fuel divestment movement—the campaign to get institutions to pull their financial investments from fossil fuels and redirect that money to clean, renewable energy as a way of tackling climate change—has its roots in U.S. college campuses. With a total of $50 billion from 837 institutions and individuals divested so far, the campaign has succeeded at an unprecedented rate, growing faster than the divestment movements against both South African apartheid and tobacco.

Last fall’s stunning news that the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune were pulling their philanthropic funds out of fossil fuel officially confirmed divestment’s transition from campus movement to the financial mainstream. Combined with the commitment of more than 25 universities to move beyond coal, with more to follow in the upcoming year, student leaders and activists should carefully consider their role in deciding where climate change policy goes from here. After successfully pressuring the administration of my own school, the University of Georgia, to shut down its coal-fired boiler, the campus Beyond Coal group effectively called it quits and disbanded. But as pipelines for progressive environmental solutions, campus groups should just be getting started.

The Hoover Institution published The State Clean Energy Cookbook in 2014, which includes a dozen “recipes” for cost-effective and easily supportable policies that have already been implemented in both blue and red states with strong overall results. Now we need a new wave of student activism focused on building media strategy, coalitions, and administrative and legislative relationships to take this natural next step and enter a larger policy arena.

On the heels of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging governors and state officials to “think twice” before submitting plans for state compliance with the EPA Clean Power Plan, college students should examine the role of states and regional networks in advancing clean energy policy. The work of UGA’s Beyond Coal group and others must extend beyond individual campuses, and should strongly oppose any calls to ignore federal deadlines for state carbon plans.

Regional cap and trade systems are another critical area for post-divestment work. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) among nine Northeast and mid-Atlantic states became the first market-based approach to reducing pollution by selling carbon credits and reinvesting the revenue into clean energy technology and consumer benefits. With a goal of reducing 10 percent of power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions across the northeastern U.S. by 2020, the RGGI instead caused emissions to drop more than 40 percent from 2005 to 2012 and generated $102.5 million in revenue. An estimated $1.4 billion in lifetime energy bill savings are coupled with bill credits to low-income families and clean energy job training for workers. RGGI also served as the baseline policy model for California’s cap and trade system, the first state with a program of this kind.

State adoption of these programs has so far been lacking in leadership and provides an excellent road map for student involvement. I’m not calling on students alone to make this happen, though; I’m also calling on the Sierra Club, 350.org, and other environmental organizations with strong student involvement to step up to the next challenge. Let’s celebrate our victories while capturing the momentum focused on divestment and recognize that it’s time we expanded our reach.

Torre Lavelle is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment. She is majoring in ecology and environmental economics at the University of Georgia.

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Better Community Investment Will Pay Dividends for Colleges

May 19, 2015Emma Copeland

We need to start holding colleges accountable as anchor institutions that provide economic growth and stability to their communities.

We need to start holding colleges accountable as anchor institutions that provide economic growth and stability to their communities.

In recent weeks, the debate about holding colleges accountable has focused on schools’ responsibilities toward failing students, continuously rising tuition, and increasing student debt. What’s been overlooked is the role of colleges as a potential force for good within their more immediate communities. Indeed, one of the most profound ways a university can improve the holistic experience of its students is to invest more in the surrounding community.

Presently, many four-year institutions entrust the bulk of their money to low-risk funds or national banks like Bank of America. The money that flows into a school never directly returns to the community, and it is often the case that low-income residents near a college must battle gentrification, stagnation, or both. For example, New York University’s $3.5 billion endowment is currently invested in national banks such as Bank of America, Chase, and Citibank, none of which are directly involved in developing the community around NYU.

Outside of investment, universities and colleges spend a huge amount of money that has the potential to directly affect the communities around them. Big schools like Michigan State University, which purchases nearly $87 million worth of goods and services annually, could spend mere fractions of this number on local small businesses, causing them to flourish like never before.

As a student at a four-year public university in Northern Virginia, I know a few things about debt and personal economic stagnation. To say “the United States can’t afford the status quo in higher education” might be the understatement of the decade. So how can we shake up the status quo?

We need to start holding colleges accountable not just to the government but to their communities. As anchor institutions, they have the power to provide economic growth and stability and serve as cornerstones of their communities due to their role as large permanent employers with significant investment capabilities. They are also permanent physical landmarks that serve as points of pride for their members as well as nearby residents.

Colleges and universities tend to be huge anchor institutions due to their extensive reach in a variety of commercial activities, immense diversity of employment throughout their numerous departments, and the vital exchange of wealth between students, alumni, trustees, fans, and neighbors to the school. It is time for these institutions to begin making a concerted effort to develop and invest locally for the long term.

The first way we can hold colleges accountable as anchor institutions is by encouraging and facilitating responsible purchasing from locally owned and operated businesses for anything from food to office supplies. This would allow small businesses to leap into the big leagues, and colleges have a responsibility to support the entrepreneurial efforts of graduates who choose to settle nearby as well as the local business owners who employ their students and alumni. Even 10 percent of the funds earmarked for paper products for a large public institution such as the University of Michigan would be the number one account for a local business struggling to compete with national suppliers. Working with these businesses to help increase their production capacity and streamline various processes would ultimately result in a symbiotic exchange of tailored quality for vital business development. Colleges have too long relied on one-size-fits-all corporations to supply their food, office supplies, cleaning services, and more. In the long-run, establishing relationships with local providers enables both the institution and the businesses to thrive as each respects and relies on the other.

Second, universities should be responsible for investing locally. Universities often have access to far more capital than the cities and towns that surround them, but they invest in distant fossil fuel companies, huge national banks, or even Israeli military efforts.  As anchor institutions, colleges should invest in their communities through community development financial institutions (CDFIs). By promising to invest a majority of its cash-on-hand in the surrounding community, a CDFI is able to safely give loans to small businesses, prospective college students and families, and new homeowners. These kinds of investments improve the lives and livelihoods of community members not directly affiliated with the anchor institutions. This is particularly vital because non-anchor institutions like large-scale banks are often unwilling to invest in these low-income communities because of the economic risk.

Colleges are institutions that can help a struggling or non-competitive community find its feet. If we hold them accountable in the right way, as institutions of economic growth for the long-term, colleges can begin to boast many more achievements and far fewer failures.

Emma Copeland is a junior at George Mason University, a 10 Ideas author, and a member of the Campus Network's Braintrust.

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Beyond Divestment: How NYU Can Still Invest in the Public Good

May 12, 2015Eugenia Kim

The fossil fuel divestment movement on college campuses highlights two distinct aspects of the problem of climate change. The first and most obvious is that climate change and environmental issues are drastically changing our planet and require immediate action. The second is the responsibility of our colleges and universities to be stewards of responsible social change.

The fossil fuel divestment movement on college campuses highlights two distinct aspects of the problem of climate change. The first and most obvious is that climate change and environmental issues are drastically changing our planet and require immediate action. The second is the responsibility of our colleges and universities to be stewards of responsible social change. While climate change appears to have caught the public eye in recent weeks, this question of responsibility continues to be overlooked. Both of these issues are now coming to a head at New York University (NYU).

On March 26, a working group of NYU’s University Senate voted to recommend not divesting from fossil fuels. On April 30, the larger University Senate, which encompasses both student representatives and faculty, will also vote on divestment.

The stated argument against divestment is twofold: political and fiduciary. The report released by NYU’s working group is emblematic of the faulty assumptions school administrations across the country have about divestment. The report claims that it is not in the nature of a university to take a stand on a political issue such as climate change, and that NYU would be better suited to combat climate change through increased research investments. Further, the report states that it would be financially irresponsible for the university to divest.

However, the working group’s argument is self-contradictory. The university cannot simultaneously claim to have no position on climate change and actively fund research that works to combat it. Further, the sheer existence of climate change is no longer a debate; broad consensus has been reached among independent agencies and scientists that climate change is real. The political question that does arise is what the institution is going to do about it. The working group also fails to recognize that divesting from fossil fuels and investing in research are not mutually exclusive. The administration has the power to do both while maintaining its fiduciary responsibilities.

NYU’s arguments against divestment are in no way unique; they exemplify the fundamental assumption of college administrations that an institution must choose between the social good and economic profitability. This is not the case, but the divestment movement has failed to demonstrate that university investments can be both profitable and environmentally friendly. Advocates committed to the divestment movement must provide more guidance as to how administrators can better spend their money.

While divestment is an important symbolic gesture toward a university’s commitment to sustainability, meaningful investments in green energy businesses are a more tangible request, if perhaps less likely to inspire rallies. Investment alternatives offer practical solutions that enable activists to work with, rather than against, administrations. For example, Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University has not divested from fossil fuels, but it has invested in the Evergreen Cooperatives, thereby promoting economic growth in the Cleveland community, and still maintains a commitment to tackling larger questions around sustainability and climate change.

While these investment campaigns are harder to organize around, there are students who are interested in analyzing the economic responsibility of their universities, and student involvement in this process is vital. The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Rethinking Communities initiative is geared toward identifying and developing smarter economic decision-making practices for colleges and universities. The project is led by students who support divestment but offer smart and socially responsible local investment solutions.

NYU, for example, could stand to gain higher returns on its investments if it would simply move some of its funds from large banks like Chase into community development banks. By divesting just $500,000 (0.014 percent of NYU’s $3.5 billion endowment) from fossil fuels and moving it to community development banks, NYU could increase its returns while helping middle- and low-income residents get loans, promoting financial literacy, and providing secure financial services. This idea that investments can be both socially responsible and profitable holds true for universities across the nation.  

Students are important but overlooked stakeholders in university policy. They are the ones doing the research and asking the important questions about their schools’ social responsibility. Sit-ins, protests, and rallies across the country are the product of a large number of young people feeling left out of the decision-making process at institutions designed to serve them. These students want to participate and engage with their school administrations in making financial decisions and developing viable solutions, In short, these students want to be part of universities that embody the values they teach.

Eugenia Kim is student at New York University and a member of the Rethinking Communities Brain Trust.

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Denise Cheng: To Prepare for the Future, Lower the Voting Age

Apr 22, 2015Laurie Ignacio

The Next American Economy's video series on “The Good Economy of 2040" continues this week with Denise Cheng from the MIT Center for Civic Media and the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation.

The Next American Economy's video series on “The Good Economy of 2040" continues this week with Denise Cheng from the MIT Center for Civic Media and the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation.

Cheng is an advocate of open government initiatives like open data and participatory budget projects. But if she had to pick only one thing to ensure a good economy in the future, she would lower the voting age to 16 “so people are actually getting their civic education while they’re still in high school," ensuring that "they have the best information to make an informed vote.”

Read more about initiatives to lower the voting age to 16:

"Scotland let 16-year-olds vote. The US should try it too.” (Vox)

"Hyattsville becomes second U.S. municipality to lower voting age to 16" (Washington Post)

Denise Cheng is an innovation fellow with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation. She has an eclectic background in community building, the future of news, and labor in the peer economy—specifically, worker support around the growing pool of people who depend on piecemeal income. Cheng has spoken, written, and appeared widely in NPR, Harvard Business Review, and Next City, at the New Museum and Personal Democracy Forum, and more about the sharing economy. She received her MSc from MIT and is an affiliate researcher with the Center for Civic Media at MIT Media Lab.

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Online Learning Is No Substitute for Campus Community Engagement

Apr 22, 2015Zach Lipp

“Within 5 years the world's best education will be available online and it will be free,” said George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen in a September 2013 interview. “Arguably that's already the case.”

“Within 5 years the world's best education will be available online and it will be free,” said George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen in a September 2013 interview. “Arguably that's already the case.”

When I heard the claim last summer, I took notice. I was and continue to be an undergraduate with a love for online learning. I have watched dozens of lectures recorded on YouTube, enrolled in an unrealistic number of edX, Udemy, and Coursera courses, and taken a Codecademy track or two. But while I love digital learning, I also love the traditional campus experience, and I do not believe the former alone can suffice.

The public sphere is rife with claims that online education opportunities can subvert the American higher education system. The most recent barrage comes from Kevin Carey’s new book The End of College, which has generated many media reports and reactions. Missing from the debate are the voices of students: not just traditional college students, but digital learners as well. As a representative of both groups, I see the gaps in online learning.

While record numbers of students are attending colleges, they remain a relatively elite set of institutions. The costs of attending college are high and only growing, and student loan debt has expanded dramatically in recent years. Meanwhile, a treasure trove of learning opportunities is available online for free. Some see this as spelling the demise of the college; however, MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) completion rates are alarmingly low.

Yet even if MOOCs had the demographic pull and (at least) the completion rates of American colleges, they would still earn the scorn of academics. Digital course companies and colleges support competing purposes of education. As Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana said in his opening address this year, college can be either transactional or transformational. Yes, some students will always approach college as transactional, but a digital education, I believe, is necessarily transactional.

The college experience consists of much more than courses: as I have mentioned before, campuses teem with opportunities for civic engagement. Colleges around the country host speakers, rallies, and student organizations like the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, engaging students in communities in ways an Internet connection cannot. Moreover, these communities extend beyond their campuses. By fostering student education and activism, campus organizations foster citizenship.

Colleges are anchored in diverse communities that provide ample learning experiences. My involvement with the Rethinking Communities project , which provides a framework for students to expand and improve their college’s impact in their local communities, leads me to question how to leverage these relationships. My most meaningful lessons took me into the cities beyond my campus. We can learn an immense amount by engaging in our local communities, and there is no opportunity for this type of learning in an exclusively digital college. My experiences tell me digital education falls short of developing and engaging citizens, and as a result, so does the claim that online courses will replace physical ones.

Zach Lipp is a junior at Concordia College and a Rethinking Communities Braintrust member.

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Predatory Finance Has Hurt Our Universities, But Students Can Fight Back

Apr 13, 2015Dominic RusselRyan Thornton

Our tuition checks shouldn't be going to pay off debts from Wall Street's bad deals.

Our tuition checks shouldn't be going to pay off debts from Wall Street's bad deals.

The last few decades have not been kind to America’s local public institutions. Cities that once built state-of-the-art infrastructure are now struggling to fix potholes in the street. Public schools that were once the best in the world are lagging behind. Even our universities, which used to be gateways to a shot at a better life, are increasingly becoming too expensive for much of the population.

There’s no shortage of explanations for these problems, ranging from globalization to government waste to an aging population. These answers, however, all overlook the role that a growing Wall Street has played in changing the picture for public institutions.

In 1950, the financial sector accounted for about 3 percent of U.S. GDP; it now accounts for more than 6.5 percent. This financialization has given the big banks on Wall Street immense wealth and power, allowing them to extract greater and greater earnings from public and private borrowers. While the financial industry is reaping huge profits, it is individuals, not corporations, who pay an increasingly large share of the taxes that are supposed to support our public institutions. Since 1950, corporate tax contributions have dropped from 32 percent to only 17 percent despite corporations claiming a growing share of GDP. In contrast, individuals now pay 63 percent of taxes, up from 45 percent in 1950.

Our cities and schools—and all public institutions that rely on taxes to provide essential services—have felt the impact of this change. Facing slashed budgets, they have been forced to turn to the financial industry for loans. Undoubtedly, borrowing is necessary for financing extensive long-term capital projects; however, public institutions are increasingly compelled to secure loans for their short-term spending as well. Big banks are more than happy to accept the business of cities and universities desperate for funding, especially when the banks get to write the terms of the deal.

Wall Street’s profits are no longer solely built on interest from traditional “vanilla” loans. Instead, its banks have turned to high-risk, high-cost, and unnecessarily complex deals to further inflate their profits. Take interest rate swaps, for example. Swaps are a financial instrument devised by banks that allows cities and universities—those issuing bonds to finance long-term projects—to “swap” a variable interest rate for an agreed-upon fixed interest rate.

These interest rate swaps were deceptive from the very start. They were sold as protection from changing interest rates, but because exorbitant termination fees made refinancing extremely costly, they were essentially dangerous bets that would have only worked out if interest rates rose. And the deck was stacked against the cities and universities making these bets.

Banks illegally manipulated the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), which was tied to many deals, and helped precipitate a financial crisis that led to near-zero interest rates that continue today. Because banks had negotiated the swaps contracts so that they would be paying the variable market rates, cities and universities ultimately ended up locked into deals in which they were paying as much as 50 times what the banks were paying—all of which went to Wall Street as profit.

Both of the schools we attend—the University of Michigan and George Mason University—entered into swap deals that have costs them millions. One swap at Michigan even protected banks by allowing them to terminate the deal if variable rates hit just 7 percent, while offering no protection for the university when rates actually sank near zero.

The current imbalance in power need not be the case. Increased transparency surrounding the fees and terms of public finance deals would allow students and taxpayers to oversee the officials and banks who use their money and hold them accountable. When university regents, trustees, or other executives receive or have received compensation from the financial institutions their school does business with (as was the case in a series of University of California swaps), they should immediately recuse themselves from financial decision making to avoid conflicts of interest. Cities, states, and universities can work together to bargain with banks or create public options for bond underwriting and borrowing.

In situations in which our public entities have been targeted by banks, we can organize and pressure our public leaders to regain the money we lost. The city of Detroit was able to reduce its bank payments from $230 million to $85 million by exposing the invalidity of a swap.

Because swaps were often marketed to public institutions as a safe protection from variable interest rates—not as risky bets—it may be possible to pursue legal action to reclaim some of the losses. One avenue to reclaim public funds is the regulatory framework of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, which mandates that municipalities be made fully aware of the risks and possible costs of entering into financial deals.

As students, we feel the impact of Wall Street every time we pay tuition. We put ourselves in thousands of dollars of debt to pay for school, but because most university borrowing is backed by student tuition, this personal debt simply begets institutional debt. All this borrowing means huge profits for the banks that finance debt, much of it coming from hidden fees and inflated payments on long-term deals with our schools.

However, as students we also have the unique opportunity to band together and make our collective voice heard. For a few years our well-being is the primary focus of a massive anchor institution, and our dollars are often the main source of its funding. We can demand better than the status quo by pressuring our schools to reclaim that money from wealthy bankers and put it back into our institutions.

If borrowing from the big banks was on fair terms and intended for long-term capital projects, it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, instead of using our nation’s wealth to pay for education, increase our human and physical capital, and build our long-run potential for growth, we are using it to increase incomes for the wealthiest bankers.

We've reached a worst-case scenario, but it doesn't have to stay that way. By holding Wall Street accountable for how it plays with tuition and tax dollars, we can bring things back around so that public investment means improving society, not improving Wall Street's balances.

Dominic Russell is a sophomore at the University of Michigan and the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Policy Impact Coordinator for the Midwest. Ryan Thornton is a junior and Campus Network chapter head at George Mason University.

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What Policies Do Young People Want? Let Them Tell You.

Apr 8, 2015Joelle Gamble

As another presidential campaign season heats up, and candidates scrambled to create messaging, structures, and even gimmicks and swag in an attempt to engage young people, I can’t help but think about why we do what we do here at Roosevelt.

As another presidential campaign season heats up, and candidates scrambled to create messaging, structures, and even gimmicks and swag in an attempt to engage young people, I can’t help but think about why we do what we do here at Roosevelt.

Young people on college campuses are often asked to make phone calls, knock on doors, and campaign for existing agendas, but they’re rarely asked about their own policy ideas. Since 2004, we have been working to change that norm. At its core, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network seeks to defy the public’s expectations of young people in politics today.

Over the past 10 years, we have built an engaged, community-driven network of students who are committed to using policy to transform their cities and states now and build the foundation for a sustainable future. We believe that broader participation in the policy process will not only improve representation but produce more creative ideas with the potential for real impact.

In this year’s 10 ideas journals, we present some of most promising and innovative ideas from students in our network. With chapters on 120 campuses in 38 states, from Los Angeles, California, to Conway, Arkansas, to New York City, we have the potential to effect policy ideas that transcend the parameters of our current national debate. Our student authors push for practical, community-focused solutions, from using pavement to improve sanitation in Louisville, Kentucky, to creating community benefit agreements for publicly funded stadiums in Lansing, Michigan, to building workforce development programs for agricultural literacy in Athens, Georgia. 

Policy matters most when we take it beyond the page and bring it to the communities and institutions that can turn it into reality. Many of the students in this year’s publication have committed to pressing for impact. They’re connecting with decision-makers in city halls and state capitols, armed with the power of their own ideas. 

The next generation of innovative minds and passionate advocates is here, and it’s changing this country one idea at a time.

Check 'em out!

Joelle Gamble is the National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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While Congress Plays Politics, New York State Must Invest in Young People

Mar 26, 2015Kevin Stump

Last week, the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate released budget proposals that include a slew of policy changes that would negatively impact young people’s ability to fully participate in the economy.  

Last week, the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate released budget proposals that include a slew of policy changes that would negatively impact young people’s ability to fully participate in the economy.  

The proposals would, among many other bad ideas, freeze funding on Pell Grants for 10 years and eliminate mandatory funding for the program, leaving it vulnerable to the unstable political culture of Washington, D.C. Both budget proposals would charge students interest on all their loans while they’re still in school, costing the average borrower thousands of dollars more. Each budget also eliminates the Pay As You Earn student loan repayment program, which caps monthly payments based on borrower incomes to make payments more affordable for moderate- and low- income debt holders.

It’s concerning that Congress cares so little about an entire generation of young Americans — the very generation that will have to repair what today’s leaders have broken.

While Congress continues to play politics, states need to make investments so this generation isn’t subject to spiraling economic inequality and missed opportunities. As New York approaches its April 1 budget deadline, the governor and the state legislature need to prioritize policies that will help young people to fully realize their potential and participate in the economy.

As outlined in my critique of Governor Cuomo’s student loan program, New York State must: (1) inject resources into public higher education, (2) roll back tuition hikes, (3) reform the Tuition Assistance Program, and (4) require that economic develop initiatives include some type of student loan relief for employees.

But even those measures won’t be enough by themselves. In order for the state to forge ahead and truly invest in youth, it will also need to do the following:  

  1. Increase the minimum wage. With Millennials making up 71 percent of minimum wage workers, raising the wage would give young people a chance to pay down debt, invest in the economy, and start building their economic future. 
  2. Charge the governor’s 10 Regional Economic Development Councils with developing a serious comprehensive plan to integrate paid apprenticeship and internship programs into the criteria for doing business with the state. To help combat the double-digit unemployment rate for 16–24-year-olds across the country, New York State should take advantage of its economic development projects, like START UP NY and NY SUNY 2020, to (1) provide young people with income and (2) impart the skills necessary to compete in today’s economy.
  3. Pass the NY DREAM Act to give thousands of New York’s undocumented youth access to state financial aid so they too can fully participate in the economy.
  4. Expand Governor Cuomo’s proposal to double the Urban Youth Jobs Program. This will help reward businesses that hire and train inner-city youth. In addition, this will help give New Yorkers ages 16–24 the opportunity to learn professional skills while also getting paid.

Conservatives and progressives are both trying to shift the political pendulum in their direction as they gear up for the 2016 election, which will consequently shape the fabric of our political system for the next decade. But Republicans in Congress, as evidenced by their budget proposals, continue to forget about young people. It is now up to President Obama to reject these failed principles and for states to get serious about enacting the real policy changes we need to give young people a fighting chance.

As Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Director Joelle Gamble articulates so well, “the young people who are inheriting the effects of the decisions made at all levels of government today… want to see investments made in a more prosperous future.”

Kevin Stump is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Leadership Director.

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The Republican Budget Plan Looks to the Past, Not the Future

Mar 19, 2015Joelle Gamble

The Republican budget plans are causing quite a stir in the D.C. press and in Congress. However, the content of their proposals, if enacted, will ripple beyond the beltway and into states, cities, communities, and college campuses across the country – and the consequences should be of particular concern to young Americans.

The Republican budget plans are causing quite a stir in the D.C. press and in Congress. However, the content of their proposals, if enacted, will ripple beyond the beltway and into states, cities, communities, and college campuses across the country – and the consequences should be of particular concern to young Americans.

Rather than using their new platform in Congress to make investments in the future of this nation, Republicans have chosen to pack in a laundry list of complaints and repeals based in our past. Young organizers have already begun to push back against proposed slash in Pell grant funding.  Other backwards-looking choices, from repealing the Affordable Care Act to failing to invest in new energy technology, would also have a profound impact on young people.

The Campus Network believes in policy that is by and for people, not built at the expense of them. We’ve got a student-generated budget to prove it. As the young people who are inheriting the effects of the decisions made at all levels of government today, we want to see investments made in a more prosperous future. Investments in accessible and affordable education, critical infrastructure, green energy, and good jobs are what is going to help our generation succeed – not the renewal of old policies that have repeatedly proved ineffective.

Joelle Gamble is the National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

 

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The Sweet Briar Dilemma: Will Predatory Lending Take Down More Colleges?

Mar 16, 2015Alan Smith

After 114 years of educating young women in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar College recently announced that the 2015 academic year would be its last. It’s closing its doors, administrators say, because its model is no longer sustainable.

After 114 years of educating young women in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar College recently announced that the 2015 academic year would be its last. It’s closing its doors, administrators say, because its model is no longer sustainable.

There are plenty of people coming out of the woodwork to explain Sweet Briar's problems. Dr. James F. Jones, the school’s president, claims that there are simply not enough people who want to attend an all-women's rural liberal arts school (though application numbers and some pundits disagree); he blames the discount that the school was giving to low-income students for the institutional budget shortfall. Billionaire investor Mark Cuban says that Sweet Briar has fallen victim to the student loan bubble and that students are unwilling to commit the money to attend, which sounds a lot like the blame-the-homeowner narrative that came out of the 2008 financial crisis.  Others are wringing their hands that small colleges in general are doomed.   

These takes are varied and complex, but they are all missing an important point: that predatory banking practices and bad financial deals played an important and nearly invisible role in precipitating the school’s budget crisis.  

A quick look at Sweet Briar’s audited financial reports (easily available in public records) reveals enough confusing and obfuscating financial-speak to last a lifetime, but a few days of digging did manage to unearth a series of troubling things.  

A single swap on a bond issued in June 2008 cost Sweet Briar more then a million dollars in payments to Wachovia before the school exited the swap in September 2011. While it is unclear exactly why they chose 2011 to pay off the remainder of the bond early, they paid a $730,119 termination fee. For a school that was sorely strapped for cash, these fines and the fees that accrued around this deal (which are hard to definitively pick out from financial documents) couldn't have come at a worse time.  

Just how big a deal are these numbers? The school has a relatively small endowment even among small liberal arts colleges: currently valued at about $88 million, with less then a quarter of that total completely unrestricted and free to spend. But in 2014, the financial year that appears to have been the final straw for Sweet Briar, total operating revenues were $34.8 million and total operating expenditures were $35.4 million, which means that the deficit the school is running is actually smaller than the cost of any of the bad deals it’s gotten itself into with banks. 

All of this puts in a very stark light the fact that the early retirement of debt (in other words, the losses the school suffered on the overall value of the bonds it had taken out because it decided to pay them back early) cost the school over $9 million in 2011 and more than $13 million in 2012. Why did the school accrue these costs? We have no way of knowing if it was bad advice from bankers, negligent trustee members covering a mistake, or a well-intentioned plan that hit at the wrong time.  

What we can say, though, is that a million dollars here and a million dollars there adds up to real money that was desperately needed as Sweet Briar fought to stay afloat.  

We know that Wall Street collects higher fees on risky and complicated deals involving variable rate debt and hedging instruments, like the ones found in Sweet Briar's last few decades of financials, than from fixed rate debt deals. We know that they add on things like credit enhancements, further driving up the costs. We know that those higher fees mean that there is a clear financial incentive to sell schools, municipalities, and pension funds on these risky deals. And we know that it works in Wall Street's favor that someone like me can spend days digging into this stuff and still not be totally sure what the exact costs of these deals are.  

What we don't know is how all these things were allowed to happen at this particular school in this particular timeframe.  

Sweet Briar appears slated to close because it is a small organization without the resources to counter the huge information imbalance that has helped precipitate the financialization crisis. It is closing because it signed some terrible deals to get what must have felt like "needed" money at the time. You can see the reasons: a $14 million bond (with swaps) in 2001 for campus improvements. A $10 million bond in 2006 to pay off other bonds that had revealed their ugly side and were costing the school too much to be allowed to fully mature. But, as has so often been the case in everything from municipal finance to personal home loans, there was a problem in the small print. Like many other colleges, what appeared to be vital and even beneficial deals turned out to be nothing of the sort. Unlike many others, Sweet Briar was already close enough to the financial brink that these ongoing debts made the difference between staying open and closing its doors.  

There are, of course, other very real pressures on Sweet Briar. Lower enrollment numbers do really hurt a school, and there are real questions about how to keep small, rural liberal arts institutions competitive in a higher education economy. None of these issues, however, compare to the fees, fines, penalties, and other losses that are all over Sweet Briar’s books. 

Is Sweet Briar the canary in the coalmine? Banks are certainly making obscene profits on the backs of the swap deals in the UC system, at the University of Michigan, and at American University — and those are the places that we’ve found in our first month of looking. While those schools are solvent enough that these swaps are not pushing them to the brink of closing, they are exacerbating budget shortfalls and passing debt on to students through increased costs. These deals are also clearly making money for many school trustees whose day jobs happen to be with the giant banks. Here I find myself agreeing with Mark Cuban, at least in part: these trends are a part of a vicious cycle of borrowing that is wholly unsustainable, and will eventually lead to a crisis.  

This is why the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is working to track the ways in which financial institutions are extracting wealth from our colleges and universities, and make a clear case for demanding our money back. I hope that the storied institution of Sweet Briar can find a way to keep its doors open in 2016, but even if it fails, that failure should wake us up to predatory practices at colleges and universities around the country.   

Questions? Concerns? Interested in my math? Drop me a line.

Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.

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