Although tankers full of ink have been spilled over the growing student debt problem in the United States, most of it has been focused on isolating the causes such as increasing tuition, an anemic job market and cuts in government financial aid. But Andrew Ross, writing for The Daily Beast, is asking a different question: Is allowing college students to go into debt that many of them will never be able to repay immoral and does the obvious conflict of interest prevent colleges and universities from protecting students from taking on this kind of burden?
Ross, who knows a bit about the inner workings of higher education as a tenured professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, also offers the unique perspective of a social reformer. In addition to his teaching duties, he is also a member of the Occupy Wall Street Strike Debt Assembly, so the issue of student debt is near and dear to him. It’s no wonder that by observing the students around him, he’s come to view debt as a moral issue, since graduates who leave NYU typically do so with a debt burden 40% higher than the national average.
Although he heard from many alumni who were struggling to repay debts well north of $100,000, his current students seemed unwilling to talk about the issue when he brought it up in class. When asked in private, at least two student admitted that the main thing keeping them from talking about their worries was the shame.
At a pricey college, they were surrounded by peers from well-heeled families, and they feared the stigma if they spoke about their own straitened circumstances. One of them apologized for falling asleep in class: he had taken on a second job—not uncommon these days—to avoid the burden of even more loans. The other confessed that she did not want to feed any inner doubts about whether her dream education would be a career stepping stone or a financial millstone; as long as she was still studying, she wanted to stave off such thoughts.
His Occupy Wall Street Debt Campaign was an attempt to de-stigmatize student debt default. The idea was to sign up those who owned student loans but would commit to stop all payments if the campaign drew the pledges of one million others. For Ross, it was a way to make public something that was already taking place all over the country behind closed doors: student loan defaults. It was also meant to show that being financially unable to repay a loan wasn’t a signal of a moral failing.
Foreclosing the future of young people is a callous act, and a self-destructive path for any society. But allowing Wall Street financiers to feed off their predicament is beyond any moral compass, especially—and here I speak as an educator—when the revenue is being extracted from an activity as honest as the pursuit of learning.
The question still stands, however — is it morally better to repay student loans or default on them?