I read an article yesterday in N+1 that got me thinking about higher education, and debt, and jobs, and our culture. It’s something I think about quite often, and I know I’m not alone. This is why I decided to write about the topic on the blog, something I normally wouldn’t do. You might think that a discussion of student loan debt doesn’t fit with literary style, but let me break it down for you: People who love books typically go to college. People who go to college typically must struggle with the cost of that college. People who are struggling with costs and debt are usually forced to make some tough choices when it comes to personal style and shopping. You follow?
Before I dive into the article, here’s where I’m coming from. Like many Americans, I took it as a given that I would go to college after graduating high school. The high costs seemed abstract, like something made up and far away. I would have been able to attend my state school on a full-tuition scholarship, but I opted for my top choice small liberal arts college instead. When you’re 18 and everyone tells you you need a good college degree to get a good job, the thousands of dollars in loans seem like nothing more than a small hurdle, and the prospect of attending a large university with 75% of my high school just wasn’t appealing in the least. Do I regret my decision? Sometimes, especially when I’m making my loan payments each month, but I don’t think I would want to give up my college experience in the long run. After graduating, I moved back home so I could afford my loan payments and figure out my next plan of action. I worked at a job I absolutely loathed because there weren’t many jobs to be had in my home state of RI. Then grad school winked at me like a promising beacon of light. Sure, it was expensive, and I couldn’t quite afford to pay for an apartment in Boston, but that’s what loans are for! Right?
I graduated nearly 3 years ago, with a pretty useless Master’s degree, some really great friends, and a massive pile of debt to add to my already staggering college debt. I’m still learning how to deal with the bills each month, along with my other living expenses, and on a publishing salary, it can be a daily struggle. It IS a daily struggle, even with help from my fiance and a very restricted shopping budget.
My experience is one shared by many, many people. Americans continue to prize higher education despite the growing evidence that job opportunities just aren’t there to justify the price tag. The article sums it up quite well, “The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.” The result? Debt begetting debt, unemployment, overly qualified workers stuck in severely underpaid jobs. The article goes on to make convincing parallels to the housing crisis, saying national student loan debt numbers in the trillions of dollars, the number one cause of debt in America, surpassing credit card debt for the first time ever.
Another interesting argument in the article: why are the costs of higher education rising at such a drastic rate every single year? “But the rapid growth in tuition is mystifying in value terms; no one could argue convincingly the quality of instruction or the market value of a degree has increased ten-fold in the past four decades (though this hasn’t stopped some from trying). So why would universities raise tuition so high so quickly?” The short answer: “because they can.” It goes on to point out the number of universities that exploit their graduate students, forcing them to teach on barely livable wages while tenured professors continue to do research and publish articles, leaving the brunt of the course work and grading to their teaching assistants. More and more, universities are being run like corporations, with high-powered and well-paid administrations eating up most of the tuition money, enticing more students with new facilities and iPads.
Bottom line: despite the fact that loan debt is quickly becoming an all-encompassing social ill (those with student loan debt can’t even claim bankruptcy to ever escape it), Americans cling to the notion that an education can cure their problems, get them that job, and make all their dreams come true. With this kind of endemic thinking, will we ever beat this cycle? Is education still a worthy investment?