Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Student Debt Stigma

No form of debt is so fiercely loathed as student loans. I'm not perplexed as to why, there are many and good reasons, but I do wonder why the resentment is so vague and often misdirected. What I observe is not principled opposition but rather a pastiche of regrets and sundry indignations. Let me give a few examples and hypotheticals.

One common source of resentment is that education ought be free, or at least free to those who cannot afford it. Though I disagree, this is to me an intelligible position. What I don't follow is why the rage is not directed at professors. If education ought to be free then wouldn't the people with the knowledge, teachers, be chiefly at fault for charging? Now a philosopher a la Socrates might agree and allege that our modern professorial class is nothing more than sophists. I've not, though, ever heard this argument advanced, though it's not an incredible claim. Benefits might follow from a culture wherein many experts take on a few pupils gratis rather than having a select few essentially retire from the profession and teach for a fee.

More commonly, though, I hear the argument that education ought to be subsidized by those with allegedly excess monies, an argument I find unpersuasive because it doesn't shift the burden from educators. Even if you have a right to an education, it doesn't follow that someone third party with no ability to remedy your dearth of education other than that he has some goods which might be seized, bears the responsibility.

Another familiar recipient of debtor rage is the lender. This again is not wholly unreasonable, for the lender should  if only for himself do some investigation as to whether the recipient of the loan will be likely to pay it back. It is in no one's interest that the borrower default, although the lender won't care or bother to do diligence if he's assured he'll be paid even in cases of default. Again, though, this is the less common argument than, well it's more of an accusation really, that lenders are hucksters. That may be true, especially if the government has insulated him from risk, but such doesn't mean the borrower should hate the lender. After all, the borrower doesn't have the money to get what he wants. The lender does, and he's willing to risk it. That should engender some gratitude, if only at the fortuitous availability of resources for your venture

The last object of the indebted student's scorn is the school itself. Classes are too expensive. I didn't get a job after I graduated. Surely many schools are poorly run, but unless you favor the decentralized,  setup I outlined above, an institution is needed, and institutions have overhead. Likewise, you might not have a job, but you bought a curriculum. Probably should have checked the demand first. The school, however, may be at fault. Not necessarily for charging too much or poorly preparing you, but for letting you in.

You see I think there ought to be a student debt stigma. As it is, student debt is a sign of an individual's investment in the humanistic over the economic. Never mind the utterly nugatory "liberal arts" education $90,000 buys you, spending money on education is the shiniest badge of honor. Never mind the predominantly supine collegiate experience of most "students," once they get the paperwork they're graduates. Instead of these honorifics, exceptional student debt should signal one of two things: either you weren't smart enough to get a scholarship, or you went to a school whose standards you didn't really meet, but who admitted you anyway just to take your money.

Of course, that reality is hard to take: that one's a deeply indebted, mediocre talent, with skills nobody needs. So instead the student debtor dwells on the fact he was swindled by a banker, defrauded by a school, and exploited by the government. Actually, that's pretty understandable.

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