Monday, July 1, 2013

Educational Values

It is July 1, so student loan interest rates are now set to double. This only applies to Federal Stafford loans, and I can assure anyone out there that there are plenty of other groups and banks and sharp-toothed lenders out there who are already operating at high interest rates, but it is still bad.

I was driving home today, listening to NPR. WBUR, out of Boston, specifically. Radio Boston was the program in question, and listeners were calling in to discuss their views on the recent, as of today, hike in student loan interest rates. The program is here:

I started listening just about when a woman called in who seems to be in the same boat I am: expensive education, loans taken out with the promise that: “with your education you’ll pay these back probably in less time than the life of the loan,” a terrifying mountain of debt, and a constant struggle to find work that pays a living-with-loans-wage, never mind employment in the vague field of said education. I’ve been her, the tears catching as you try to tell the story of your education, of your life, hoping that maybe—if you say the truth enough, it can change. I admire this lady's courage for calling in, for announcing where so many of us are.

I’ve filled out more “Economic Hardship Deferment” and “Income Based Repayment” forms than I like to remember. While grateful for these programs—and for the abolition of Dickensian debtors prisons—my stomach feels slimy at these times, as if I’m cheating, or trying to steal my education from the government, from the banks and institutions who hold my tens of thousands of dollars of debt. And I’ve cried hot tears, before swallowing my veneer of pride and taking a loan from my parents during the various hard times and emergencies. I love my parents very much, and not least for being able and willing to help, but I do not like to admit to failing. Moreover, grateful as I am, I am 31, have two degrees and live cheaply, so feel that I should be able to find the jobs that will make ends meet without occasional assistance. At least, that was the system I agreed to when I took out the loans, but something seems to have changed. I've talked with others, and there is a terrible sense of feeling a failure because you cannot seem to make good on your end of the promise to take out a loan and pay for your education. I have to think that people in this boat with me are not failing, that the system is failing us. I know too many people who are striving to be both the person their education has made them, while paying back the loans.

And so, the woman who called in, who was gently guided off the air before she fully wept or gave a battle cry, was talked about in the abstract by the panel. There was talk about how her debt load, how future students’ debt loads will hurt the economy because the payees will be forced to delay milestones like buying a house and having children and then paying for those children's education and then paying for their (our) retirement. There was talk of how, unfortunately, many people are in the same situation and that the thousands of dollars that my brethren and I pay back to our crediting institutions represent a lost disposable income that could be poured into the economy more effectively. I agree, but even the passivity of the conversation, as if no one involved has the power to change this "unfortunate situation"is not what bothers me most.

The conversation moved on. Someone said how families and student applicants need better counseling about the financial realities of what taking out college loans looks like, in practice, after graduation. And, that if students knew what they were getting into, they would make different choices. And, again, I agree about the better financial counseling. What I take issue with is the idea that my people and I are willfully in this boat, that our indebtedness is solely the product of a conscious decision on our part, that we chose to have these chains. I personally received somewhat false assurances from my graduate school when I mentioned my concerns about taking out more loans to better my brains, and in theory, better my odds on the job market. I could go on about who is to blame here, but that is beside the point, wasted energy, and distracts from the largest elephant in the room here.

Specifically, what we’re not talking about, what no listener or expert or legislator or host said on the program today, is that education is too fucking expensive. Representative John Tierney, of Massachusetts, did mention that the Federal Government is now willing to loan money to banks at a lower rate than it is willing to lend to poorer students, and that didn’t seem to him like a good representation of American values.

Friend, I worry that it is.

It seems that we value money, above everything. I have friends who are still deep in Academia, slaving after PhDs. Their undergrad students, frequently, seem to abandon fascinating courses of study, abandon knowledge for the glorious sake of knowledge, for a major that will make them more competitive on the job market. Rightfully terrified of how to pay for their education, people seem to be funneled away from anything involving passion and learning and opening of understanding of oneself and ones place in the world, and towards lucrative majors and careers with made up words like ‘re-branding’ or ‘cross-market-fluidity.’

I think of the dusty corners of libraries, of the rare books and forgotten, brilliant poets and scientists and writers and thinkers and historians and theologians and artists. I worry that we’re selling out the torch of knowledge, and I believe, deeply, that this will come back to bite us in the ass, as a country, as a global society. As much as we are a global society—I’m going to throw this rant up on the world wide web and people on all continents could read it, if they chose—we seem to be increasingly narrow and self-interested, as opposed to self-aware. Our educations, such as they stand now, are teaching us to be concerned only with our own skin, with our own abilities to find a job, to compete in a harsh job market. We're made to feel like guppies, swimming with sharks.

We’re placing a higher value on the job, on the salary, than we are on the person. This is troubling.
Almost as troubling as the little spoken class system at play here. Poor students should take out loans, and focus on courses of study that will enable them to pay the loans back. Rich students will need to get jobs also, but they’ll be coming out debt free, vastly opening their job market. And, armed with that security, they have a wider range of appropriate majors. If poor students don’t want the loans, they should either go to cheaper schools or work and save until they can afford the college of their dreams, which may be hesitant to accept a "non-traditional" student.

And yet, we’re still raising kids on the axiom:  “you can be anything you want, if you work hard.” Which, when that mindset is basically the American Gospel, makes you feel like a failure when you work very hard, and still don’t get where you want to be.

Does the game seems a mite rigged to anyone else? (See Violent Pedagogy post.)

At this time, I have no answers, no plan for creating legislation that would cap tuition at some reasonable percentage of average national income, and no plan for razing the gap between rich and poor in this country. (Yes, I am more Socialist than average.)

But I think we can do better. Step One, I think, would be looking the root of the problem squarely in the eyes.

Or perhaps, that’s Step Two. Step One, then, is realizing that none of us, working minimally paying jobs that may not pertain much to our educations and scrabbling around to build lives and pay loans, none of us are alone in this. I find that thought helps, when nothing else does.

1 comment:

  1. granite gardenerJuly 6, 2013 at 8:43 PM

    good points. reminds me of an interview I heard a couple years ago that I think you will appreciate:
    keep up the good work!