Samuel Garner is less than happy about the amount of debt he accumulated in service to his education. You can read the Ordinary Times discussion on the piece, and the consensus is not favorable to Mr Garner. I wanted to focus a bit on the last couple of paragraphs:

But that doesn’t get to the heart of the systemic problem: Education is outrageously expensive and too risky; schools indoctrinate students and their families with lofty ideals and benefit from their ignorance without accountability; and students and their families can borrow at unprecedented rates, allowing schools to continue hiking tuition. Though its advent was surely well-intentioned, our loan system is confusing and exploitative. In a country we often think of as a meritocracy, it’s appalling that we have an education system that frequently does more to punish students for getting educated than it does to reward them.

Ultimately, like many other enlightened countries that recognize education as a critical public good—foundational to the economy and a just society—we need to move toward free public education, including graduate school. Where will this money come from? Given the billions we spend on federal student loan programs and the disgusting amounts of money many college presidents and administrators make, I’m sure there’s plenty of money that could put us in the right direction. To start, we need more substantial efforts to refinance and forgive student debt. There are millions of people like me who would like to get on with their lives.

As is often the case with these sorts of piece, they conflate numerous things and try to shoehorn them all into the same issue. And as is often the case with pieces like this, they choose some of the worst case instances imaginable.

For example, he wants to move towards “free public education” but his experience is with… a private school. So right there, he had a very good, less expensive alternative that he did not avail himself of. He mentions the University of Wisconsin as a possibility, only to dismiss it as “still leaving him in debt.” At no point does he seem to express regret that he didn’t do what he could to lower the costs. He admits error, but that’s not the same thing. Just as he says that no degree is worth $240k, without giving any indication that if his choices were a degree for that much, Wisconsin-Madison for less, or no degree for zero dollars would be preferable.

For the right students, and the right schools, and the right majors, I am actually sympathetic to the notion that “college should be free.” But these are specific questions with specific answers. And if there is one thing that Garner was clear on, it’s that he is uninterested in specifics.


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28 Responses to We Must Prevent This Thing I Do Not Regret

  1. oscar.gordon says:

    This is how probably 90% of the education debt sob stories told in popular media play out.

    Rarely do we have such authors tell the story of the person trying to rise out of poverty through education, but having little experience in such things, getting taken in by a scam. I mean, I hear such stories, I know they exist, and they surely outnumber the tales of privileged kids being dumb, but those stories are told as anecdotes at best, or just statistics at worst.

    And even less often do we stories like mine, where the young person made careful, deliberate choices regarding their education, and left school with some pretty manageable debt (I have car loans that are more than my student debt).

    • greginak says:

      I think it was raised on the other thread, but it seems like Slate picks a topic and finds the worst person who made the most bad decisions to write about The Issue. Not the best person to make the case about student loan debt being a problem or a balanced discussion of how student loans have helped people do better. Stu loans helped me and lot of people i know afford an education. Of course so did public schools, not expensive private ones. The guy is blaming other people for his mistakes.

      fwiw, i’d say nurses and docs and a few other jobs should be able to get heavy discounts on schooling.

    • fillyjonk says:

      At my uni, we have a number of stories of students trying to rise, if not exactly out of abject poverty (though we have a few of those) wanting to rise past the limitations their background might impose.

      As we strive to be affordable many of our students graduate with minimal to manageable debt.

      I admit I go slightly ballistic when I see someone seemingly promoting as an across-the-board blanket statement that “no one” should invest in going to college. I always want to say, “Good luck finding a medical practitioner in 20 years, then”

      Not everyone needs college but some people do.

      Also, there are programs to forgive some student debt in various fields. I believe that doctors and nurses going to “underserved” areas get that, a colleague has a daughter teaching at a high-poverty K-12 school who is getting some of her debt forgiven.

      I dunno. I find myself a little outside the discussion as I was in the unusual situation of not needing loans. Granted, I went to a state school some 25 years ago, but I also have to confess to having an inheritance from grandparents to help pay. Once I got to grad school, I was a teaching assistant, which mostly covered my (frugal) costs and also got me experience for the gig I have now. I realize that’s unusual but I also had friends who did work-study as a way to avoid/reduce the loans they had to take out.

  2. RTod says:

    I think you pretty much nail it that there are different things happening here the get conflated.

    It’s an unfortunate thing that all of the online magazine sights (Slate, Salon, Huff, DB, etc) constantly run pieces like this, making these kinds of entirely unsympathetic people the poster children for the crisis of higher ed costs. I suspect that most of it comes from the fact that most of the small-page editors who run them are in their early to mid 20s, and they themselves don’t have enough perspective to see that they are choosing whiny and easily dismissible people. I even suspect a lot of them say, “that’s just like me!”

    I would have had more sympathy for Mr. Garner if his own piece would have showed a degree of self-awareness on his part — either currently, or back when he was in school. (How does one take out a $70K for a masters program and have no idea that they now have $70k in debt they are eventually going to be asked to repay?)

    But as you say, none of that diminishes the very real issue of higher ed becoming crushingly and unnecessarily expensive.

    • Brandon Berg says:

      The other possibility is that they’re running the most sympathetic stories they can find, but that the real stories with really big numbers and poor-to-mediocre job prospects all involve people making bad choices.

      For all the hand-wringing, state schools are still heavily subsidized for in-state students, and the private schools that are significantly better than state schools often have need-based aid. Which is why a sizable minority of undergraduates graduate without debt, and those who actually have debt average $30-35,000.

      To ring up six figures in debt, you either have to make an ill-considered financial choice at the undergraduate level or go to graduate school without funding, which is also almost certainly a bad move unless you can pay cash or it’s a professional program that sets you on a solid career path.

      What does a legitimate student loan victim look like?

      • Oscar Gordon says:

        I know there are student loan victims out there, people who were not well versed in how to navigate colleges and financial aid and got taken for a ride by a sham school (I almost had that story when I was 18, but managed to avoid it), but I doubt such stories involve 6 figure debts.

        Having $35K in debt doesn’t sound bad, unless your degree is truly worthless and you have no network of family and friends to fall back on. But still, $35K just doesn’t sound bad. As I said above, I spend more than that on a car. This is why we get treated to stories about privileged kids being dumb, because they are the ones capable of actually getting into 6 figure trouble.

      • RTod says:

        I would disagree on two fronts here — or maybe really just one.

        The first is that I believe there are plenty of better cases for sympathy when it comes to the cost of higher education. Most of them aren’t people who have graduated with X debt, they’re people who either never went or never finished because they simply could not afford it. My son is taking a year off to earn money before he goes back for his junior year, but he knows a lot of people who don’t have a situation where they can just go live someplace and have everything paid for them for a year so they can put very penny they earn away for next year’s tuition. They are dropping out.

        The second thing is that your statistic of $35k in student loan debt doesn’t really mean much.

        My son will probably owe far less than that when he finishes, but that’s because he has upper-middle class parents who are paying the lions share for him. If he does end up with only $35K in debt, it won’t really be a reflection of how affordable college is, it will be that he was privileged enough to have have been born into a household where both parents each made six figures for almost all of his life.

        And while its true that there is a savings to be had by going the state school route, that doesn’t mean that state schools cost $35,000. The school my son is going to is a state school in Eugene, Oregon — which ain’t SF, NY, or Boston — and they were very honest when he applied that the likely total cost of going to school there — provided he was able to wrap it up in four years without a lot of extra credits and extra-curricular activities — was going to be over $100,000.

      • Michael Drew says:

        But a choice to rack up six figures in undergrad debt will by definition be a poor financial decision at the undergrad level.

        It’s hard to feel sympathy for kids who get to go tp private colleges, but the colleges are out there marketing the hell out of themselves to students who put a great part of their self-worth into being good enough at school to get into them. They’re getting them to come, giving some significant financial aid, but facilitating six figures in loans for other students. I think the victim/not victim dichotomy doesn’t really matter. There’s considerable harm being done either way.

        You can always say they should just make better decisions, but they’re going to keep doing it. It actually is the bigger problem as far as I can see between debt from public universities, which isn’t fun but tends to be manageable, and private college debt. You can fix the latter if you want to via a Sanders or Clinton plan. It’s harder to address the former. I would consider hard caps on total subsidized loans, but students are on to private lenders already. It seems like you almost have to get into income-based ceilings on tuition. I know we can say just let people suffer until they learn, but this is just doing too much damage. And in each individual case, the harm is done by the time the kids 23. I don’t see that as acceptable levels of damage, nor do I see the learning curve happening for it.

        The schools don’t want to just be finishing schools for the rich, but they need to be forced to choose between accomplishing that by giving truly ample aid (which they do in a lot of cases, but it’s just too harmful to send people out into the world with six figures of debt for an undergrad education, so it needs to be a really consistently adopted rule) or accepting the economics of the product they offer. 17 year olds and their families who are invested in these kinds of hopes of upward mobility just don’t seem to be learning to really incorporate the meaning of these figures into their value calculations.

        My sense of it is that there shouldn’t be really catastrophic educational financial decisions made easily available to hopeful, naive high school students who’ve worked their asses off for just those opportunities. That means a mixture of lowering some students’ expectations early on, and working to lower the costs for those who take the spots.

  3. Oscar Gordon says:

    I swear the education industry has been cribbing notes from the diamond industry when it comes to marketing their product and being able to sell it at a hugely inflated markup.

    People have been sold a bill of goods at an inflated price, because the schools, and society, has told them, over & over & over that education, any education, is an investment that will return more than it’s cost, when the reality is that this is frankly not true. Schools & society have for years pushed the message that the cost doesn’t matter, because the education will pay for itself.

    That is the real problem. Student aid has enabled this message, but the fact is that we’ve spent years telling ourselves that the price of an education has some direct correlation to quality and earning potential. And in some limited ways, it does, but it’s much more complicated than that.

    But the problem is this idea that we shouldn’t look too hard at the cost; that the cost, whatever it is, is worth it, that you’ll make so much more money at the end, etc. Starts to sound like the patter of a con. What’s worse isn’t that the con has taken in the sons of privilege like our essayist, but that it sucks in the desperate who just want to find a way to ascend the social ladder and be successful. And schools simply accept no responsibility for it, even as they cry about the crisis they cause.

    I’ve mentioned before, in the comments at OT, that one of the smartest things we could do is require that the federal student aid office publish the statistics regarding repayment & default rates for every school they give money to. And then have that data on their page, and linked to the online FAFSA, so when you enter your school in the form, you immediately see their stats, and how they rank compared to other schools. You could even break it down by degree program if you want.

    Makes the con much harder to sell.

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      As per Mr. Drew above, I’d also make the disclosure rules for private debt more clear. I’ve heard that schools don’t always have to be very upfront with how much they are loaning out and at what interest rate.

    • Michael Drew says:

      Oscar, the thing is, “repayment & default rates” etc. are always going to be just so many more words and numbers of which they have to process SO MANY during the course of the college admission process, for a large number of high school students – and for a lot of their parents. In many cases it is parents who are least equipped to really help weigh these (quite new) financial realities who place the greatest emotional significance on college – a good college – as a source of hope and basis for upward mobility. If we want to stop that from being the case, we need to shut down most or all of the “America, land of opportunity” talk, like, right now.

      At some point this ends up coming down to choosing between “well, if they’re so financially illiterate as to not even really be understanding what they’re walking into, then the remedy is simply for them to suffer the consequences” (and just because they know they’re walking into six-figure debts just to get out of undergrad doesn’t mean they really understand what that means) – and opting for elements of paternalism on this. I have no problem with the latter. This is not to say don’t make as much of the info available as possible. Maybe it should even be labeled in a way similar to the surgeon general’s warnings. I just have my doubts that’s going to be nudge enough. It’s just more marks on a page when you want to go to a college – and your family wants you to, too.

      • Oscar Gordon says:

        I agree that presentation of the data is important, but disagree that it’s just more numbers to process. I’d argue that the reality is that prospective students usually don’t have any real numbers to look at in the first place, except for dollar amounts. What they have is lots of slick marketing and associated spin, and perhaps some idea of the rankings in USNWR, for the little that matters.

        Smart students, whose parents have educations, or who have excellent guidance from school, know how to get better data. When I was looking at schools, my parents were useless, but the VA, they had people who know how to evaluate schools (which makes sense, since they were about to pay for my education, they had a strong incentive that I go to a good school).

        So yes, we need a touch of paternalism for students in the form of counselors who can help. In my ideal, we’d put the onus on the banks that service the loans. Make it the price they pay for bankruptcy protection.

        • Michael Drew says:

          Well, it’s worth making the info available. To be clear I’m not saying it’s meaningless to 100% of kids. But I think the majority of kids who would grasp it best probably are going to the best college they can get into without worrying about the money too much because they don’t have to. It’ll be useful to some, and then to a lot of others it won’t mean a lot, even though they’re who we’re targeting.

        • Michael Drew says:

          We have to remember that if you’re a person who’s in danger of taking on $140,000 of undergrad loans, then you’re a person who likes the idea of that prior to any nudging, or at least who really likes the idea of what you’re getting in exchange. We need to think of these as not kids who are sitting back and taking a careful and dispassionate look at what their best choices really are. How many of them are coming out of that kind of process concluding that taking on such debts are the best choice?

        • trumwill says:

          So what do we do?

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          I’m not worried about the kid who is in danger of taking on $140K in loans. That kind of situation is first off, statistically rare, and second, not the person any of us should be worried about, any more than I worry about the middle class people who bought too much house during the height of the market, and had to short sale or foreclose. Garner spins a sorry tale, but I honestly think he’s not being entirely honest with his audience. I do not, for an instant, think a middle class kid who had an older sibling go to the same damn school he was going to, was blindsided by the cost or loans. His was willful blindness.

          I’m worried about the people who get taken in by the shady private schools because of slick marketing and dishonest stats. I’m worried about my 18 year old self, who had no colleges interested in him, except the ones who sent little tests through the mail, that offered some basic set of skills that would offer a good, middle class wage. Schools that sat in old, half empty strip malls and charged as much as the local university for a significantly subpar education. These are the places where a flag on the FAFSA app that said “50% of the graduates from this school have at some point asked for loan repayment assistance or have defaulted on their loans” would hopefully at least cause prospective applicants to dig a little deeper.

        • greginak says:

          Part of the problem with his piece was the family issue he glances over that were clearly important. His family had money troubles especially. That makes his case different from the general and all he does is note them but not take a hard look at how his specific family situation may have been a lot of the cause and how his avoident behavior was a real problem.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          Yep

          Although perhaps I’m jaded, since my family always had financial troubles, so cost was something that was always at the forefront of my mind. Even when I knew the VA was paying my tuition, etc, I was thinking about all the other costs, including my wife’s tuition. I still pay close attention to money, although not as hard as I used to.

        • Michael Drew says:

          WIll,
          As I suggested in my long comment above, I think we start by hard-capping the total amount that any student can take out for undergraduate education in federally subsidized loans. Then we place various restrictions on the private lenders that will come in to try to take those loans’ place. I don’t think we can cap the amount of unsubsidized independent loans students can take, but we can do a variety of things to make these loans (somehow defining when a loan, whoever makes it, is an educational loan) less attractive to lenders to make. We can cap the rates they can charge under any circumstances. We can mandate a variety of out-clauses or income-linked payment requirements be part of the contracts. We can limit their recourse in going after defaulters.

          And then, you’ll love this, if these measures are successful in getting students to stop agreeing to mortgage their lives to help rich students not have their quality of living go down when they descend from their parents’ mansions onto campus, and if the colleges respond to that by just enrolling fewer students of modest means, we can offer an incentive program to expensive colleges (or to all colleges) that provides limited-term matching-funds to colleges that show progress in 1) maintaining scholarship programs that make attendance genuinely affordable for meritorious students of modest means and 2) generally moving toward more affordable costs of attendance as charged to students. Essentially, a buffer subsidy to help colleges adjust the product they offer to something that the non-rich can afford without mortgaging their whole future on it.

          That’s what occurs to me off the top of my head. Sorry for the delay.

        • Michael Drew says:

          …We can, of course, try Oscar’s much cheaper, less interventionist information-solution first, though. Should, even.

        • Trumwill says:

          My failure to respond was not disapproval. I think there’s a lot to like about your plan. It’s just one of those things that has a lot of consequences one has to think out.

  4. Peter says:

    It could be that the problem is starting to correct itself. That’s definitely happening with respect to law school, which is very expensive and offers poor job prospects. Enrollments have plunged something like 35% in just the last few years.

    • Michael Drew says:

      The difference in understanding of the actual proposition and the meaning of these costs certainly should be, and I think is, quite great between laws school applicants (who are often already college grads, but in an case almost are) and high school students and their families.

      It’s also one thing to decide against law school when you already have a college degree that would get you into one. It’s another thing to have worked hard enough to get into an expensive college in high school, and then ramp down your expectations for which one you attend college enough to where the savings really start to come in. This is where rising public school costs start to feed into the problem. The savings start to look smaller and smaller on the page as more and more publics’ tuitions climb further and further up into the five figures, looking more and more like privates (even though the savings in fact remain significant).

      But the more basic point is, we should expect law school applications to track coasts better, because the applicants are much more experienced with, well, everything except maybe the work world – and many law schooll applicants are exerienced with that. It’s just not so with high school students and their familiies.

      All that being said, you could be right.

  5. aaron david says:

    The real question to me is, what are the job prospects of a bioethisist? What are the prospects from his schools? Why was he following this as a career if he wasn’t getting a free ride through grad school?

    If say going to bioeth U gives you a 100% chance at a job paying 100K/year, than it might be worth it. If not paying that high, or you go to a school that doesn’t have the return of BioU, than it might not be worth it. Also, often if you are paying cash for grad school outside specific proffesional schools that charge everyone, you aren’t a hot prospect to start with.

    My son, a year ahead of Tods, will graduate from a state school in business. That school has a very respected business program which my son has augmented with specific extra curricular activities that already put him into his field, with actual experiance putting his major to work. He also, works part time off campus to help defray costs. I encouraged him to take a bit of debt to do this, as I feel that it gives him a stake in the outcome of activities that he is choosing as an adult, consequences that he needs to be aware of.

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