I came across this article recently on a friend’s social media feed. It describes the trap many young people (and the older people helping to finance their educations) find themselves in. It is worth a read so you can fully understand what those struggling with this generational problem are going through.
Education is important to Catholic culture and is at the heart of our heritage. The European university system is rooted in Catholic history and the monastic cultures of the middle ages. To be Catholic is to allow one’s self to be taught, to be a student of the Church.
Yet we live in a culture that has monetized education to such a degree that it is among the most expensive investments of a person’s life, often far exceeding what students could ever reasonably pay.
I’ve been a teacher for over a decade with many of those years spent working in Higher Education so I have heard all the usual responses to concerns over student debt. They go something like this:
- Why can’t students just learn to study practical things? (Even if they do, their debt burden limits their wealth during crucial early years of building a family/buying a house/ expanding the economy. Also, what counts as “practical” changes quickly. Though coding and social media expertise may get you a job, that job will not always be high paying enough to support the amount of loans one is asked to take. Besides, even if these things weren’t true, do we really want to limit what people are allowed to study and know to what is beneficial to a future employer? As Catholics, we have to reject a model that only privileges market forces over human knowledge and potential).
- Can’t students just work their way through school? (No. No part time or summer job available to someone without an advanced degree will come close to paying off the tuition at even a state school).
- Can’t they just go to a community college? (Yes! But take a look at the state of community colleges. They are often underfunded with underpaid, adjunct faculty. Community Colleges are a really important part of the educational system but we need to invest in them and make sure that when students to transfer to a four year degree they aren’t drowning in debt).
- What about school online? (Many online colleges are predatory and overpriced, targeting the most vulnerable populations and leaving them deeply in debt)
- Well, college isn’t for everyone! (This is true, but the modern economy, despite what your uncle who keeps urging you to “go into the trades” thinks, has very few pathways to the middle class and beyond that don’t require a degree. Also, the weakening of unions in this country has further stagnated wages in many of these fields).
- Aren’t colleges to blame for rising tuition? (Colleges are not blameless in some of their priorities and many do encourage students to go into debt they can’t afford, but requiring each college to run like a business with massive marketing and compliance budgets has not helped. The biggest boost in most universities has not been in teaching staff, but in administrative roles while faculty go underpaid and placed in precarious employment situations. It is a mess all of society has made by defining college as a personal rather than societal investment and cutting back state funding).
A budget is a moral document. If we value education we must make it more accessible. We must find ways to make college affordable for the students now in primary and secondary education. This should be done by a re-evaluation of state budgets and tax structures to fund the futures of our children while also making sure colleges can use their own budgets in ways that prioritize instruction over ballooning administration.
The problem will remain however that young people who should be having children, buying houses, and advancing the economy are held in a holding pattern of anxiety and weighed-down potential. To stand on rigid principles and say “these young people need to be taught a lesson” will only hurt the baby boomers who will depend on millennial productivity to fund their elderly years (we already know boomers have, on average, not saved enough for retirement and because of a ballooning deficit fueled by recent political choices, made epochally worse by the Trump tax cuts, entitlements for the elderly are more threatened than ever).
There is only one true way forward: a massive campaign to forgive student debt. We know that even in an era of massive defaults on loans that the federal government still has been able to make money on these loans. It is time to set them loose and let the economy and the spirits of young people rise unfettered.