Student loans are more in the news now than ever. They are the topic of lively debate among the official Very Serious People on the political chat shows, debates in Congress, and are a driving force behind the Occupy movement.
I have my own history with student loans. Most of my many years as a professional student were paid for by scholarships. I got a small scholarship to go to art school in the late 1970s and took out some small loans. I worked all the way through undergraduate school, mostly in kitchens. Graduate school was mostly paid for with scholarships. I got full tuition scholarships from Washington University in St. Louis plus a fellowship. I got a partial tuition scholarship from the New York Academy, and the rest I made up for with loans.
Until recently, my employment situation for the last 20 years was very precarious. I mostly did very low paying insecure jobs in commercial painting and in adjunct teaching at a number of local colleges. As a result, I paid very little or none of my student loan payments for a long time. A lot of times it was a choice between the landlord and Sallie Mae, and Sallie Mae lost. I am making my monthly payments in full now, and they are doozies. My monthly student loan bill is now almost as much as my rent. I can barely afford it. All of my payments now are going to pay off years of accumulated interest and penalties. I paid off the principle a long time ago.
On a certain level, I accept my situation. I went into a profession that does not pay well at all and is largely marginalized. On the other hand, why should I be penalized twice because conventional society is too selfish and stupid to value either fine art or teaching?
My students at the community college where I teach have a much worse time of it. Scholarship money is not nearly as generous or abundant now as when I went to college. Tuition, even at small public colleges like mine, is much higher than 30 years ago. Almost all of my students work. Most of them work full time, even full time students. Some work 2 full time jobs and they raise children or take care of other family members at the same time. Many are Iraq/ Afghanistan veterans who are returning to a job market that is not at all glad to see them. On top of all of that, the rules and procedures around Pell Grants and Stafford loans and New York State financial aid become more punitive and exclusionary every year. Many students, even accomplished ones, are forced to drop out because they cannot get the money together for tuition.
One aspect of this situation that I think is under-appreciated is how much this dance of rising tuition and diminishing financial aid has affected the classroom. I was in grad school when this dance all started, and I remember my old profs complaining about declining enrollment in arts and humanities departments, and that their students were becoming stenographers passively scribbling down everything that was said without challenge. My professors all went to college on the GI Bill at a time when it was possible to work part time and pay for tuition, something that is impossible now. It's hard to pursue a major in egyptology when you are staring a fifty to sixty thousand dollar debt load in the face. It's hard to consider a major in physics or biology or engineering with a future of crippling debt burdens. It's hard to consider medicine when the debt load after med school is a quarter million dollars. As a result, business schools on university campuses are booming, and state colleges and community colleges are transforming themselves into glorified vocational schools to keep up with the demand. The very high paying financial industry (and corporate law) attract most of the USA's brightest, though probably not its best. Given that reality, few students are going to be inclined to rock the boat in any classroom. Students now are more likely to see their courses as hoops to jump through on the way to that desired degree rather than as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Some of our best and brightest students have had to turn down admission to prestigious institutions because they could not afford it.
I wonder if anyone else thinks that a 22 year old carrying a thirty thousand dollar debt load on graduation is lunacy?
As to the notion that college affordability reflects relative merit and accomplishment on the part of students and parents, I have only two words, legacy admissions.
So often, colleges will admit students not because they are particularly bright, but because their parents can afford the tuition bill and they have a history and clout with the college. A young man who I hired as a model years ago was a Columbia grad. He came from a poor background. His father was a mentally ill Vietnam vet and his mother was a Mexican cleaning lady. He went to Columbia entirely on scholarship because he was brilliant (he already spoke 4 languages in high school). He always complained about the dumb-as-dirt legacies who took up so much space and resources that could be better spent.
Political rhetoric to the contrary, our higher ed system is not much of a meritocracy. Think of George W. Bush, the ultimate legacy student. There are times when I think higher ed is returning to its 19th century function as gatekeeper for an established and self-perpetuating oligarchy. There will be trouble when people eventually figure this out, because they pay those sky-high tuition bills and suffer those debt loads because they think they are buying a ticket into the professional classes. If the whole system is rigged against them, then why should people support it?
If I had my way, it would be the Finnish model. All education from pre-K to post-doc would be public.
Something to ponder this May Day.