Are Student Loans Immoral?
by Andrew Ross
The Daily Beast
Millions of grads are saddled with unpayable student loans, yet colleges still say they're a sound investment.
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.
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.
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