Millions of grads are saddled with unpayable student loans, yet colleges still say they're a sound investment. NYU professor Andrew Ross asks if it's time to stop repaying the loans.
Straight talk about the crushing burden of student debt is everywhere—except the one place it should be: on college campuses themselves. Students, professors, and college administrators seem to be in denial. For students who have never managed their own finances before—certainly the vast majority of undergraduates—the silence isn’t so surprising. After all, they’re not required to pay a penny on their loans until they graduate, so they coast along, often blind to the consequences of their ballooning debts. And our college presidents and senior administrators have good reason to duck any responsibility for the gathering crisis: all the evidence shows that they’ve gotten steadily richer from the proceeds of the higher-education bubble.
Students at the UCLA campus in Los Angeles, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)
As for professors, I have known for several years that my paycheck depends on my students going deeply into debt, often for decades to come. But like my colleagues, I chose not to dwell on it, a decision that seemed justifiable given that faculty salaries have been stagnant as a whole for some time now. We are hardly to blame for skyrocketing college costs.
At NYU, where I teach, students graduate with 40 percent more debt than the national average. One alumnus told me that he and his peers had formed a “hundred club” for those in the six-figure debt bracket. So it felt long overdue when I finally began to wrestle with the problem personally. Knowing that they were trading a large chunk of their future wages for the right to walk into my classroom, did I have additional moral duties toward my students? Did I share any of the responsibility, or blame, for their decision to pile on loan after loan? Was I obliged to speak out against the profiteers who were plying them with high-interest credit?
When I raised the matter in class, no one wanted to talk. When I quizzed them privately, two students explained that the volume of their loans was a source of profound shame. At a pricey college, they were surrounded by peers from well-heeled families, and they feared the stigma if they spoke about their own straitened circumstances. One of them apologized for falling asleep in class: he had taken on a second job—not uncommon these days—to avoid the burden of even more loans. The other confessed that she did not want to feed any inner doubts about whether her dream education would be a career stepping stone or a financial millstone; as long as she was still studying, she wanted to stave off such thoughts.
If enrolled students had reasons to hold back, their older brethren were shattering the silence. Some of the loudest voices at Occupy locations around the country were underemployed graduates with crushing debt, finding solace in pungent slogans like “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” It dawned on me that all of their testifying about the personal agony of debt in public squares was a kind of “coming out” moment for a new political movement.
Despite my own ambivalence, I felt compelled to respond. Last November I helped to launch the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, which invited debtors to pledge to refuse payments after 1 million others had signed up. Since millions are already defaulting in private, our pledge simply offered a more self-empowering way of taking action and focusing public attention on the issue.
'Are Millenials 'Generation Screwed'?'
I went to college for a chance to move up in the world. But the debt I incurred in order to pay for it is holding me down.
This is the story of my education and my debt—a paradoxical combination. Ten years after college, I find myself wonderfully well educated and woefully burdened by payments that threaten many of the possibilities my schooling promised.
Graduates listen to President Obama as he delivers the commencement address at Barnard College’s graduation ceremony in May. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images)
I grew up in a very small town in rural Massachusetts consisting mostly of lower-middle-class families, some of whom had been there for generations. We had cows, corn, and about 3,000 people. The public schools were not great. There was a lot of racism and sexism. There was also a great sense of community and a respect for the earth. People there are born, go to school, get married, grow old, and die within a 50-mile radius. The poor stay poor.
My parents were both from the area and had met at a nearby state college, which they both attended part time while working full time. Both financed their own educations with a combination of wages, loans, and credit cards. We had a small house, a big backyard, and good food from our garden. I always had music lessons, food in my stomach, and clothes on my back. I recognize in retrospect that providing this was no easy task.
My parents finished paying off their college debt just as I was finishing high school. They told me I could go anywhere—but I would have to pay for it. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I got into Columbia, and I wanted to go there. I was one of four students in the 30-year history of my high school ever to be admitted to an Ivy League school. After years of subpar schooling, I would really, finally, properly learn how to read closely, think critically, and write well. I was thrilled.
I knew it was expensive, but I had no concept of such a sum of money. I just assumed it would become manageable once I held my degree in hand and entered the workforce. So, at age 17, I took out loans. Columbia has need-blind admissions, meaning that it makes admissions decisions without having access to the students’ financial profiles. Many students without the means to pay tuition are admitted. These students are offered financial-aid packages like the one I had, a combination of loans, grants, and work-study. Columbia also expected my parents to help with tuition, something they neither could afford nor had planned to do. By moving some of the burden to the parents, the school claims it is protecting the student. In the end, this meant more debt for my parents, whom I may end up supporting in their old age anyway. But, we all agreed that this was a great opportunity, my chance to “get out” of the small town and to “move up” in the world.
At Columbia, I studied the arts and writing and worked a mélange of work-study and summer jobs. When my classmates went to their summer homes in the Hamptons, I got a job answering phones in the chemistry department. During the winter I worked as a security guard, I sorted mail in a mailroom, and I catalogued music in a library. When things got slow at work, I read. I had a lot of reading to do.
When we graduated in 2001, I wanted to continue my schooling and become a professor. Some of my friends, who were carrying debt, made more “responsible” decisions. My roommate, a talented musician and mathematician, gave up the cello and took a job as an investment banker. The guy I was dating, a political-science major and the son of a single, immigrant mother, also went to Wall Street. Both said they took such jobs to be free of their loans.
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Higher education is becoming the new caste system.