Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Higher (Priced) Education

I've pulled out my soapbox, so settle in. In the comments to an earlier post on student-loan debt, Nester pointed me toward Lynnae Brown's project The Garnished Life. There, you'll find plenty of information about the documentary she's making by soliciting stories about "the student loan debt epidemic." Brown herself has a particularly heart-wrenching story about having accumulated $60k in loans, only to be plagued by chronic illness, default on those loans, and now finds herself saddled with a quarter of a million dollars to pay back.

As I watched her story (because not only does she have her own video at her site, but also embeds video of her participation in a piece on 60 Minutes), I was struck by the equanimity with which she faces this debt. In both pieces, she laments the feature of the system that does not allow for what she calls, alternately, "human error" and "life." She explains that despite the fact that she's working, and has worked, consistently, she cannot begin to make a dent in that huge figure.

I have no such equanimity, I'm afraid. Perhaps Brown is strategic, and is engendering empathy for her plight in an attempt to call people to action. I find myself enraged. The problem, it seems to me, is not that the system disallows human error, which mistakenly places the role on the actions of the individual. Instead, the problem seems to be a very fundamental trifecta: the economic need for a college degree to attain a white-collar job; the exponential gains in college tuition; and the unwillingness of the government to commit to recognize this with monetary assistance.

Apparently, the original Higher Education Act (called "a mammoth act" by the Chronicle), ca. 1965, provided the first governmental attention to wide-scale student and institutional loans, and by most accounts, provided significant access to higher education for students who would not have been able to attend college otherwise. Periodically, however, Congress must vote to renew the act as is, or to make changes to the law before renewing it. As time has gone on, then, the original act has been stripped of much of its civic potential. At Inside Higher Ed, this post details the most recent changes to the Higher Education Act, which include both cutting funding AND raising interest rates for students and graduates. Pay more principle, pay more interest. Meanwhile, the nation's most popular lender, Sallie Mae, has found its stock price up over 2000% since it became a private lender. Does it seem to you that students are destined to live life in penury so that SM stockholders can buy country estates?

It's been documented in a number of places that the fear of impending debt-doom drives students away from professions that don't pay well, and those same professions are the ones that function at the bedrock of society (teachers, nurses, police officers, etc.). Generationdebt.org provides links to sources such as the Christian Science Monitor that explain how graduates delay significant events (weddings, purchasing homes) because of their debt.

At Ascesis U., I teach many students who are first-generation college attendees. The vast majority of them have student loans, and, simultaneously, the vast majority of them deeply believe that education will save their lives. (Seriously, while reading Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, they chimed like a Greek chorus: "If only these people were educated...). What I see is an ideology that utterly conceals the reality of life with debt incurred by education. At some point, this becomes a serious moral dilemma for those of us who teach: is it ethical to sell that ideology to our students? I can't help but believe that education is vital and necessary and life-saving, but is it worth decades of payback? In a steel-cage death match between erudition and a garnished life, which wins?

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