College is indentured servitude

On the galling financial injustices of American universities

A college classroom.
(Image credit: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

Absolutely nothing about the way we pay for higher education in this country makes sense.

Like many Americans my age, I took on a decent-sized amount of debt to attend college for no good reason (it was what my girlfriend at that time was doing). I don't totally regret those four years: I played the best poker of my life, got very good at the drinking version of Mario Kart (always use Wario), and acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of Dinosaur Jr's catalogue. I also spent a lot of time reading obscure 17th-century dramatists and bothering the put-upon lower-middle-class family men we call "professors" with pretentious questions about the "reputation" of Alexander Pope.

Five years on, I am one of those fortunate enough to be able to — barely — pay for this extended credit-financed vacation. I am in good health and earn enough money to make the minimum monthly payment. When I get a windfall I occasionally cut a four-figure check to my creditors. Bar-napkin math suggests that I will be free of all obligations to Nelnet Inc. at some undefined point between paying off my 15-year mortgage and the Second Coming.

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Lucky me. Millions of others are not so fortunate, including many of those who spent their late teens and early 20s doing something much more useful than trying to say profound things about the bad quarto of Hamlet.

The New York Times recently reported that in 19 states, including California, Virginia, and Illinois, graduates who default on their loans — as I did shortly before getting my first full-time job after college when I had no cell phone, $0.35 in the bank, and no fixed address — can have their professional certifications revoked. In South Dakota, you can even lose your driver's license.

That $50,000 nursing degree? Totally worthless now, because you failed to hand over a measly $150 you probably didn't have in the first place to a federal government that is currently in the middle of trying to cut taxes for the children of billionaires. This is exactly what happened to Shannon Otto in Nashville, who after more than 10 years in the nursing profession had to take an extended leave of absence to deal with her epilepsy. When she finally got a handle on her chronic seizures, she found herself unable to return to work because the Tennessee Board of Nursing had suspended her license indefinitely. The only way to get it back was to pay $1,500 of outstanding debt, something she couldn't do because — spoiler alert — she couldn't work.

Otto is one of more than 5,400 Americans who have lost their ability to work as a nurse or a public-school teacher since 2012 due to delinquent student loans. "It's an attention-getter," the head of compliance at the inaptly named Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation told the Times. No kidding. It grabs you by both shoulders, shakes you, and says in a clear, loud voice that the point of your education was not learning a useful skill or even studying important books but arranging for you to be on the losing side of a pitched battle in our never-ending class war. The whole thing is pointless and cruel, seemingly for its own sake.

By now we are all used to hearing about the so-called "college bubble," as if the annual spectacle of millions of would-be middle-class people taking on billions of dollars in debt that will, at best, prevent them from being able to purchase houses and put food on the table for their families were a dodgy cottage industry, like yo-yos or fidget spinners. University education in this country for everyone who is not certifiably brilliant, amazingly good at one or more sports, or from a wealthy background is a form of indentured servitude.

Imagine you're a 17-year-old kid who has grown up with all the propaganda of middle-school guidance counselors telling you that you must go to college. At some point you come up with a handful of schools, probably with help from the glossy pamphlets stuffed every other day in your parents' mailbox. You go for a campus visit and think it's really cool that in the dining hall closest to your dorm you can eat pizza or nachos whenever you want. Maybe you really like the idea of floating away your Saturdays in a "leisure pool" shaped like the initials of a football team you like watching on TV. You're definitely going to fill out that online promissory note in the financial aid office signing you up for five figures of debt; if your school is like mine, you'll go beyond just the amount needed to pay for tuition and the remodeled eco-friendly dorms and take as much as possible because the university staff will have explained that you can take out an extra two grand or so for "living expenses," i.e., beer.

You're probably a moron, like most teenagers. But punishing morons should not be the organizing principle of a decent society. There are all sorts of things we generally don't let teenagers do. We rarely give them mortgages or sell them luxury speedboats on credit. Why, then, should we allow impressionable young people to take on thousands of dollars in debt that many of them will, at best, struggle to repay?

The only schools that have solved this problem are the ones that I will be brutal and call "real" colleges, the Ivy League and wealthy liberal arts colleges and a handful of top-tier state universities. At these places it is increasingly the case that either your parents are comfortably able to pay in full each semester or you owe nothing. Congratulations, America: This is what it means to have a meritocratic ruling class.

There is an important argument to be made that millions of young people currently drowning in debt should never have been in college at all. I don't just mean the students who "earned" unstructured liberal arts degrees at state schools that are essentially long dorm-room BS sessions at the end of which students have read no Tacitus or Shakespeare but have seen every episode of every early 2000s HBO drama available on Amazon Prime and acquired a handful of painfully woke opinions. Holders of most of our utilitarian degrees could and probably should have learned on the job, as they did for many decades before we fell for the quasi-professionalization mania that was cover for the enrichment of university bureaucrats and unscrupulous contractors. Anyone who knows a subject should be able to teach it at a public school.

None of this matters in the short term, though. Whether trainee nurses should spend their time in classrooms — whether, in fact, the ability to memorize staggering amounts of highly specific medical information is the most important quality we should look for in would-be members of that profession — is a question we will have to resolve at some point. We need to do something now about our 21st-century passengers to the New World, who in far too many cases are as hopelessly bound to their masters at the Department of Education as Irish chambermaids stepping off the boat in Virginia 250 years ago.

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