Student Debt as a Moral Issue
By Noam Shpancer
A few months ago I took several of my students to a conference in Chicago. Many of my students come from small towns in Ohio. Many have never been to a big city. Many have never left Ohio, never been on a plane before. It was thus particularly rewarding to chaperone them and witness their excitement and joy as they experienced the Second City.
One evening, strolling down Michigan Ave, the conversation turned to money. I casually asked my students about their loan burden. One of them, a perky senior psychology major planning to get her Masters and become a social worker, said she had $80,000 in student loan debt. I was shocked.
Now, I am not entirely naïve about the problem of student loan debt. Until this year, I had one myself. A university degree is still—and perhaps more than before—the passport to the American middle class life.
Demand for education is high, classroom seats in good schools are in limited supply, and so prices tend to go up. Tuition rate hikes routinely outpace inflation. Thus, students are pushed into larger debts. According to the NY Times, the average student loan debt in the US topped $23,000 last year. Much has been written recently about the attendant economic and social hazards. A debt of $23,000 is a troubling burden, for students and parents.
But a debt of $80,000 is something else entirely.
You can perhaps make a case that debt of this magnitude is justified in some unique cases—such as in the process of obtaining a highly valuable degree from a top notch institution. Some professions pay very well. And Ivy League degrees practically guarantee higher starting salaries. But in this particular context—in my reality and that of my students—such a debt is simply not justifiable.
The difference between 23k and 80k debt is a bit like the difference between drinking and driving drunk. If I see a student of mine drinking beer, I may feel uneasy, or worried. I may even say something about responsibility. But if I see a drunken student get behind the wheel, I’m obligated to intervene. An $80,000 debt, for my students, is akin to getting behind the wheel while plastered. it is a recipe for disaster.
Like most private liberal arts institutions, my university prides itself on nurturing students. Many formal systems and procedures are in place to identify and address potential problems and pitfalls students may encounter as they pursue their degrees. We track student attendance, we track their grades, we advise them on which courses to take so as to stay on track toward graduation; we make sure they take the right load—that they don’t over-burden themselves.
There is a medical clinic on campus, as well as career counselors at the ready and free psychotherapy sessions. There are writing labs and tutors and study groups and remedial classes for those who are academically behind, or unprepared. There are assorted advocacy and support group and myriad religious activities.
There are social clubs and Greek organizations and many opportunities set up to help students find company, identity, a sense of belonging; we’re trying to take care of them while they learn the tools that will facilitate their ascent in the world.
Yet nobody, it seems, is looking out for their financial well-being. Nobody is there to monitor their debt load, throw up red flags and email notifications, set up consults, supports, or interventions.
One would be hard pressed to name three issues more critical to a young person’s chances of success in America than financial solvency, know-how, and responsibility. Yet we do little to help our students achieve these goals. In fact, we systematically undermine them.
You can probably guess why that is. Private liberal arts universities like mine are tuition-driven. We need that money to survive. Moreover, money matters in the US are private and personal. Adult Americans such as our students are entitled to act however they want with regard to their money. Americans, it is a well established fact, are entitled to do dumb things with their money. And they often take spectacular advantage of that entitlement.
But universities are not just businesses. They play a unique role in the life of young people and the life of the culture. A university in this regard is like a church—it requires money to exist well, but money should not be the goal of its existence. If a church is in financial trouble, it still should not sell its soul to the devil for an endowment. If it did, it might become wealthy, but it would cease to be a church.
The goal of university is to facilitate the future success of its students. A university that lets a would-be social worker (around 30k average starting salary, after graduate school, if they find a job) take on $80,000 in debt is negligent in terms of that goal.
The university may become solvent by taking this money, but in doing so it ceases to be a university.
Now, it’s true that professors and administrators in liberal arts institutions all around the country have not been in a very good mood of late. The business model that has sustained many small, private, non-Ivy League colleges around Ohio and the nation is dying. Online education is about to take many such institutions out of business. Soon enough, students will be able to receive great lectures, study materials, and help online; they will be able to take tests and earn diplomas and certificates matching their performance. They will be able to earn reputable degrees and acquire real knowledge and skills at home through the digital college, on their own time, for a fraction of the cost of traditional college.
First rate research institutions that don’t depend on tuition money will survive, as will private Ivies that cater to rich clientele and offer the benefits of national brand identifications and connections. But places such as the one that employs me are feeling the financial squeeze, and may go out of business in the not-too-distant future. And so it is no surprise that faculty and administrators are reluctant to do anything that might reduce enrollment and undermine further their already shaky financial stability. Little wonder the issue of student debt doesn’t get much attention on campus right now.
However it should. If we decide to fight to sustain the old classroom model of college education, it should not be on the backs of our students. If small liberal arts colleges are destined to fade out, we should not go out in a bitter, clueless and self pitying cloud of shame, dragging our students down with us.
The academic life—in particular the small liberal arts college tenured professor life—has been for a long time the best life America could offer. And for a while yet, that remains true. The quality of life in academia emerges from a unique blend of intellectual challenge, personal autonomy, and financial security. But in no small part, the quality of life in academia hinges on the palpable sense that you are doing good; that you are providing young people with real benefits, both tangible and intangible, that will help them—and if they don’t help, at least they won’t hurt. This sense of being on the side of goodness is what’s being undermined by letting a psychology undergrad take on $80,000 in student loan debt.
Universities, and faculty, should honor core commitments even—perhaps particularly—when under great duress. Our biggest commitment is to our students. Our biggest commitment to our students is to try to tell them the truth. The truth is that, for most people, taking on $80,000 in debt in the service of a social work degree is not a move that makes any sense these days. Universities should explicate their commitment to student solvency. They should establish effective formal mechanisms to supervise student debt, dispense sound, timely advice and guidance to students and their parents in this regard, and insist on first doing no financial harm. Failing to do so means that we are complicit—by fatigue, by willful ignorance, by lazy habit, by self-deception, or by wickedness; in other words by all those things we try to teach our students to shed and reject—in betraying our charges, and therefore also ourselves.