January 11, 2021

Deven Comen (C’12)

Feature Series: The Economy of Francesco

Deven Comen (C’12) works for the College Board Opportunity Scholarships program and is a part of the Life and Lifestyle working group for the “Economy of Francesco” international conference

Deven Comen
Deven Comen

In November 2020 Pope Francis convened “Economy of Francesco," a global online gathering of young people determined to make the economy fair, sustainable, and inclusive. Georgetown University asked participating students and alumni to reflect on their experiences in two essays: the first considers their pre-conference working groups and the second offers personal takeaways after the gathering.

Connecting Pope Francis's Economy to Higher Education Opportunity

The Economy of Francesco was described as “a different economy, one that helps people live and does not kill, that includes and does not exclude, that humanizes rather than dehumanizes, that takes care of creation and does not plunder it.” In the Life and Lifestyle village, thematic conversations center around the call from Pope Francis to examine our own roles in consumption, production, and generally how we live.

While my professional life is squarely centered in college access, I found this theme of how we live, as individuals and society, to stretch my thinking. This village asks us to reflect on our own personhood and how we consume and make choices about production. At first I thought the premise seemed overly individualized, but I am now finding, as I read more and interact with the themes of the group, that we’re actually taking about combating a collective “culture of waste” that puts a winner-take-all mindset above the common good.

My passions have always centered around increasing access to opportunity—with education as the primary lever for inclusive economic mobility. Education itself is less easily identifiable as a consumable good, but it is clear: in America and elsewhere, college is the surest door to the middle class. It should not revert to being a luxury good attainable only by the privileged few. In this way, my work as a college access professional is in the spirit of making a “pact” per Pope Francis to change the current economy and give a soul to the economy (and students!) of tomorrow.

The challenge is: education remains a luxury good. Only about one in three adults over 25 years old in the United States have a bachelor’s degree (US Census Bureau, 2019). Recently, we observed the Varsity Blues admission scandal and blamed prominent wealthy individuals that bribed their way into colleges. We are disgusted when we learn of the “debt without degree” phenomenon where the most vulnerable students (veterans, first generation college students) suffer.

What we do not do enough is look at the systems and structures that we all operate inside of.

Children of alumni have a 25 percent higher chance of getting admitted than nonlegacy applicants with the same SAT scores (New York Times, 2020). The myth of the meritocracy in college admissions has been widely reported on, but we do not often acknowledge this reality for the students most poised to benefit from elite admissions: students from low-income households.

While students deserve a path toward educational and economic opportunity, for-profit colleges are closing doors and creating barriers. For-profit colleges account for 33 percent of all student loan defaults even though they make up only 9 percent of total postsecondary enrollment (Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 2019).

An individual alone, working inside an institution of higher education, cannot alone reverse these harmful realities. It is always a healthy reminder that Pope Francis offers us: we are all operating in systems that we created. In terms of market capitalism, a way of organizing and living that seeps into our education system, Francis urges us to create other systems.

In his newly released encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Francis says the marketplace cannot resolve every problem, and he denounces what he describes as “this dogma of neoliberal faith” that “resort[s] to the magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle.’”

What economy succeeds our current standard will be shaped by our conversations at the upcoming convening. I look forward to participating.

Changing the Narrative of Profit Maximization in Economics Education

To re-design the whole financial system for a new end, we will have to fundamentally address the mythmaking that most of us in capitalist economies accept as truth, whether as citizens or students of economics.

During the Economy of Francesco convening, I participated in a small group breakout session on economics education—how economists learn and the influence those instructional models have on the eventual policy that economists promulgate. I was fascinated by this topic from my background as an educator, hyper-aware of the slant I could create for my students based on the sources and curriculum I created as a former teacher. Secondly, I took economics classes as an undergraduate at Georgetown and remember being particularly struck by seeing the concepts I was learning in 2009/2010 applied to the lingering effects of the 2008 economic depression right outside the front gates. Before this session, I had not considered that economics education is one area to consider adapting to reshape the global economy in the spirit of Pope Francis.

Dr. Peter Bofinger of Germany led the session and presented his own research on economics education, which in his view has remained remarkably stagnant in terms of the texts and principles that are taught around the world. Traditional textbooks of introductory economics are flawed in their deference to markets and profit maximization, he argued, which impacts the perspectives of young economists. Dr. Bofinger used a very popular textbook written by Greg Mankiw, an American macroeconomist of the New Keynesian school of economics, to illustrate his point. Dr. Bofinger criticized Mankiw’s arguments that 1) redistributive policies reduce productivity because poor people are less incentivized into hard work; and 2) when the government tries to cut the economic pie into equal slices, the pie gets smaller.

Dr. Bofinger discredited this idea and then opened up the discussion to my fellow attendees: young people from the Philippines, Italy, India, Poland, Slovakia, Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Spain, and Peru. One participant from France marveled at how Scandinavian countries teach alternative economic phenomena, such as how GDP grows when a Gini coefficient is lower. A Mexican participant agreed and shared that we must look beyond teaching a new economic theory—we need a new way of doing economics, which means “the foundational values of our society have to change.” One Venezuelan said, “In Venezuela, we focus a lot on the how or what, versus the why. We chase down examples of GDP growth without asking why GDP growth is a good thing to aim for.” An Italian economist who worked in the European Central Bank mirrored Dr. Bofinger’s critique that economics education overly emphasizes maximization of profits. She felt that her economic training gave her a “limited view, a convenient view in numbers only.” She argued that economics should be a social science and rely less on clean mathematical models.

Not everyone agreed. A woman from Lebanon argued that “socialist policies reduce the need for people to work hard and limit growth.” She felt that social responsibility and development of communities could co-exist with capitalism.

I observed that the unconscious absorption of pro-capitalist ideals contradict my lived experience. In America, we have rampant inequality, wage stagnation, and a perilous opportunity gap. While I don’t know all the remedies, I do believe we can teach economics differently. Specifically, issues of income and wealth inequalities can be elevated and addressed from the introductory lessons. Traditional separation between microeconomics and macroeconomics could be hazier. The market might be presented as one of several resource allocation mechanisms alongside government and even communities.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us how vital coalescing interests among groups are to reduce transmission, increase testing, and build a culture that is more communal than individualistic. The great challenges of the present pandemic will require combining the best of markets, state, and communities, trying to alleviate their individual drawbacks while maximizing their relative strengths. Reflecting on the world economy after COVID-19, I see an opening to reimagine the status quo of American economic beliefs. We’ll also need to reimagine how we train the economists of the future.

Deven Comen (C'12) builds partnerships to foster student participation in the College Board Opportunity Scholarships Program. Previously, she was the founding chief of staff for the College Board’s College & Career Access division and a consultant with Deloitte's federal strategy practice, where she helped clients such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to engage K-12 teachers with financial education pedagogy and the Obama White House to launch My Brother's Keeper Alliance. Deven started her career as a special education teacher at Anacostia Senior High School in Washington, DC. Deven holds a B.A. in government from Georgetown University (2012) and a Master of Education from George Mason University (2014).