Student debt is a source of constant anxiety for over 40 million students across America. Over the last three decades, the price of a college education has skyrocketed, forcing students to enter into debt arrangements to fund their education. As the prevalence of student debt has increased, so have its effects over the decisions that young people make today. Education is increasingly framed as a return on investment rather than an opportunity to expand one’s knowledge base, pursue academic passions, and generate a higher level of consciousness. In essence, student debt has warped higher education into vocational school, leaving little room for true academic exploration.
It would be useful to begin with an overview of the student debt situation in America. According to data collected in 2012, 71% of undergraduate students have student debt. The average debt of matriculating seniors is approaching $30,000, which represents a 25% increase from 2008 levels. The rise of this student debt can be attributed to various causes. The cost of attaining an education (including tuition and housing) has skyrocketed. In 2004, the average cost of private and public universities was $24,449 per year; in 2014, it was $30,681. A steady decline in appropriations of state funds for higher education has forced many students to borrow to cover increased costs of public university education. Finally, the economic recession of 2008 resulted in more individuals deciding to enroll in college coupled with lowered endowment funds to subsidize students.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the rise in student debt are the consequences of not paying this debt back. Students who default on their debt can have their wages, federal benefits, and income tax intercepted, can be sued for the entire amount of their loan, can lose their professional licenses, and can become unemployable because of low credit ratings. One fifth of student debt in the US comes from private loans, which compared to federal loans have higher variable interest rates, no default safeguards, and can be passed on to family members after death. Default is no idle threat either: seven million of the 40 million borrowers were in default over student loans as of June 2013.
Studies reveal that student debt can pervert the educational goals of higher education institutions, especially for low-income students. One study finds that students with debt are between 60 to 70 percent less likely to pursue graduate education than students without debt. Moreover, low-income students with debt are particularly more restricted in their educational options. Low-income students are the most likely to graduate with student debt and are often the most vulnerable to default. As a result, studies have shown that while higher-income students are more comfortable exploring majors linked to both high- and low- paying salaries, low-income students felt obligated to only pursue majors associated with high-paying careers. Rather than entering a university with an open mind to new bodies of knowledge, students with debt are funneled into high-paying fields and are deprived the chance to explore alternative academic passions.
Even more, student debt dampens the spark for social change among young university students. One study revealed that student debt motivated graduates to choose high-paying jobs over low-paid “public interest” jobs where students believed they could make a strong social impact. Indeed, theorists like Noam Chomsky believe that students with debt will be less motivated to think about changing society. Debt acts as a “disciplinary technique” wherein students are forced to think only about employability rather than the social and economic structures that make higher education so costly in the first place. The result is that our educational system produces virtuous employees and consumers, but uncritical citizens.
Student debt is threatening the very purpose of higher education institutes in the United States. Student debt is transforming higher education from an avenue of self-exploration and academic inquiry to a vocational school designed to increase employability. To rectify this situation, we need to restore the affordability and equalize the quality of universities in America. Specifically, the US could subsidize college education to make it free of cost for students to attend four-year public universities. Some studies have shown that we are already spending enough on higher education to fully subsidize college.
However, as it is, an increasingly large amount of government tax breaks subsidizes private universities that already have large endowments and teach mainly wealthy, upper-middle-class students. Meanwhile, state funding for public universities has been declining. If funding mechanisms are altered, the money that is currently subsidizing well-endowed private universities can be used to cover the costs for tuition and increase the quality of teaching staff, research, and facilities in public universities. In this way, students have an affordable and quality higher education option to explore their academic passions without the constraints of student debt.
Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu