A Generation Crippled With Student Debt

student debt

July 25, 2023

This article appears in Vol III Issue II: Populism

The Supreme Court knocked down Joe Biden’s plan to do away with $400 billion in student loan debt, arguing that the administration overstepped its power by not first conferring with Congress. The 6-3 decision effectively leaves millions of borrowers on the hook to resume payments this fall. While many conservatives applaud this decision, citing “personal responsibility” and the “useless woke degrees” that taxpayer money would be subsidizing, there is a larger issue on the horizon that is only compounding as long as the debate around this topic continues superficially unfettered. 

The Political Problem

This first step is acknowledging that there exists a multifaceted problem. That there are 43 million Americans that applied for relief tells us there is a significant portion of the populace struggling to repay their debt. While Biden’s plan would have only “canceled” up to $10,000 for those making less than $125,000-$250,000 a year, such a sum of money for students who owe tens of thousands of dollars—sometimes over a hundred thousand dollars—would have been a sizable help. 

Of course, these facts alone are what makes it easy for Democrats to now campaign against the “evil conservatives.” Biden has already gone on the offense since the Court’s decision came out, which can only stand to bolster his campaign. 

What Republicans do terribly in the face of this criticism is neglect to provide any solution of their own—maybe they ultimately don’t see a problem with the federal government indiscriminately handing out loans to those who cannot afford it and those who are not pursuing degrees complementary to their costs. In turn, these indiscriminate loans then allow colleges and universities to raise their tuition. There is no longer incentive to make college affordable—everyone who wants to go can go; they simply have to hold out their hand and accept that they will be indebted to the federal government for what they borrowed plus interest. 

The scheme is predatory, but will continue to take place as long as conservatives keep parroting the useless “personal responsibility” narrative without realizing that we are breeding a generation that will not only have to bear the burden of the outrageous spending of the irresponsible politicians in Washington and the inflationary pressure that comes with it, but indebted to that same government—after all, the money must come from somewhere, right? 

$400 billion over the next 30 years to alleviate some of the college burden is not the only solution. But it is a start; and it must only be complemented with a plan to cut the federal government out of the equation, or at the minimum reduce its incentive to dupe unsuspecting 18-year-olds and their parents to accrue this debt as though college is needed to procure decent jobs. Spoiler: not always. 

Conservatives are not without blame on this front. To champion responsible spending does not preclude investment in a future generation currently drowning in malfeasance. That is nonsense and de facto irresponsible. While Republicans and Democrats can agree on sending tens of billions of dollars to Ukraine and other countries, there is much debate on where to invest in the U.S. 

But that debate appears disingenuous and is almost always political, meaning that the debate exists solely for the optics; in effect, that translates to a debate for political power. But such a power is always futile. Biden understood that he had no authority to decree by executive fiat that student debt will be canceled; but he did it anyway and now the story is that he is preparing to use the Higher Education Act of 1965 to provide debt relief. And that will reportedly take a year or two to implement. In other words, it will be ready after the 2024 election. How convenient. 

This is the nature of politics. The overturning of Roe v. Wade (1973) was a godsend. After 50 years of judicial fiat, Democrats had every opportunity to federalize the alleged “right to abortion.” But how useful would that be if an issue cannot be used for campaigning? 

Relieving college debt is no different. Neither political party actually cares about the crippling debt facing an entire generation of Americans. 

Rethinking College: Restore the Original Purpose of the University

The endless debate over student loans is a testament to the modern university being seen as the crux of a successfully executed career path in modern America. Countless majors and minors are now offered by practically every school ranging from traditional liberal arts disciplines such as philosophy and political economy, to vaguer, more modern majors such as business administration.

The vast differences between these majors reflects the state of the modern American workforce and how much a college education is pushed as the end-all be-all for success; as is also indicative of the degree requirements needed to get one’s foot inside the door of any given career path.

The idea of pursuing a four-year college degree as the default next level of progression after high school has only strengthened the government-sanctioned predatory student loan paradigm discussed earlier.

Politicians such as Bernie Sanders insist that the severity of student loan debt warrants not only a forgiveness of that debt, but also a universal guarantee of college education for all Americans, courtesy of the federal government. Republicans have called such proposals radical and imprudent, and perhaps there is some truth to that; but ultimately, neither the policy initiatives touted by progressive Democrats, nor conservatives’ milquetoast appeals to “personal responsibility” properly acknowledge the true despotism of the entire paradigm—that being the role of the university itself.

The origins of American higher education can be traced back to the mid-1630s in the early colonial era, in which the first institutions of higher learning were solely tasked with training the clergy’s next batch of ministers, continuing the old English tradition handed down to them from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Things began to change in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries however, when universities began instituting curriculums solely predicated upon the liberal arts. If you went to Harvard College in the 1820s, your undergraduate studies would primarily concern politics, philosophy and classics. You would learn ancient languages such as Latin and Greek. 

The purpose of the university in the early United States was relegated primarily to those who wanted to pursue greater intellectual development, a sort of high mindedness so utterly diluted and practically extinct by today’s smorgasbord of college majors.

It is about here where the progressive will object that higher education at this time (and in the case of the nation’s most elite institutions, in the present) was reserved solely for the aristocracy, and the progressive would be correct in acknowledging this.

But the progressive, often congratulating himself for his “groundbreaking” proposals concerning higher education for all—as well as the insufferable revolutionary rectitude that comes with it—incorrectly concludes that the heart of the injustice lies in the so-called lack of opportunity of underprivileged high schoolers who will never make it to college.

The true oppression, we contend, lies in the fact that the average American high schooler is often pushed to pursue a college education in the first place. College is not for everyone, nor should be necessary for most occupations. The role of the university in American society has been erroneously expanded beyond its original responsibilities, as well as beyond those who were originally in need of its teachings, and as a result we’ve been led to our current predicament concerning America’s up-and-coming generation of student debt slaves.

The current predicament has also left the liberal arts—the original foundation for modern American higher education—with little to no appreciation. Degree programs within liberal arts colleges are often criticized by students and parents about their innate lack of a “return on investment.” Students are instead encouraged to pursue more “practical” majors, such as engineering or computer science before even considering “useless” degrees like philosophy or political science. And unfortunately, they would be right. Why pay six figures for a degree that isn’t guaranteed to get you a job in an economy that is increasingly requiring at least four years of college education in almost every career path? 

For America to truly solve the student debt problem, there must be a broader conversation concerning why the workforce is increasingly requiring more college degrees in the first place. The role of the university, which was originally designed exclusively for professions such as ministry, legal practice or classical studies, has grown into a business that sells prestige and certification while students plunge themselves into six-figure debt. 

Such a task, of course, is far easier said than done. After all, we do not live in the eighteenth century, and many professions around today either did not exist then, or have evolved drastically since. Nothing here should be misconstrued to advocate for the return to eighteenth century education standards. Rather, we seek to revitalize a long-forgotten way of thinking about the Ivory Tower, limiting the amount of career paths that would require undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate training in the first place. 


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