Student loans: golden handcuffs or stay poor

My friend Damon (not his real name) has been a prosecutor in a major metropolitan area in the Midwest for more than six years. He’s earnest and conscientious, just like you’d hope a prosecutor would be. He went to a middle-tier law school, comes from a middle-class background and is the only lawyer in his family.

He’s also drowning in student loan debt. In fact, he owes about $60,000 more now than when he started his career.

Damon’s story is one of thousands like it. The common refrains are: “No matter how much I pay, my balance never changes.” “I owe more now than I did after years of steady payments.” “I will be paying until I die.”

Another example: Linda was one of Kentucky’s top public defenders until recently. She’s about to turn 50, has been paying since age 28 and still owes $50,000. “I can’t pay for my kids to go to college because I chose to serve as a public interest lawyer.”

Shanda, a Clarksville teacher, said, “My advisors told me over and over again that if I taught in a public school for five years, the government would pay back nearly all of my loans. What they didn’t tell me is that if you’re late paying even one payment, that incentive is no longer an option for you. Oh, and today, I paid a student loan bill, which is nearly half my paycheck.”

And Lisa in New Albany reported, “I was just told that I could get student loans, so I did. I take responsibility for my decisions, but at 17 years old going into college trying to do better, I completely screwed myself. I don’t even use my degree, because I cannot go back to work full-time because of not being able to afford after school programs.”

There are plenty of ways to do student loans wrong. You can get taken in by private schools that aren’t really schools at all. You can get carried away and take out extra money so you don’t have to work and go to school full-time. You can consolidate with the “wrong” company. The application process alone is complicated enough to fuck up at any age if you don’t have the right kind of help. Even if you don’t sympathize with hapless teenagers, there are countless horror stories of people who did everything right. The designated drivers of society still get stuck with an absurd tab at night’s end.

The popular meme is of the English, history or philosophy major struggling to find a way to make money with tools we are told are impractical: a head full of sonnets, the ability to write coherent sentences, critical thinking skills and the like. Dreamers with master’s degrees who read Nietzsche for fun are so useless in the American economy that they are just begging for a lifetime of debt, or so we’re told.

“College is not for everyone!” they say, and we nod in obsequious agreement. It sounds attractive, even to a left-wing populist; no one should be devalued because of their lack of degree. As evidenced by all the Harvard University graduates who have wiped their estimable asses with the fabric of America since its inception, education does not equal virtue.

But the old maxim is, at its core, harmful propaganda. Everyone has an interest in an educated society; the more people with more education, the better. Of course there is dignity in a vocation. There is also dignity in an education that provides you with more than just a paycheck, but helps you to be a critical thinker — someone who needs to do more than just collect wages in exchange for labor, someone who tries to understand the world they live in and make an impact on it, someone who questions everything, even when the answers don’t come easy. These categories need not be mutually exclusive.

What is often meant by “college is not for you” is often “you can’t afford that shit; you should go work for someone who will pay you lots of money so you don’t have to be poor.” Fine; there’s something nauseatingly American about that. But the part of this story that isn’t told much is that the people for whom education is decidedly “for” — engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc. — are so shackled to student debt that they are forced to take only those jobs that guarantee them a certain income. In most professions, the keepers of the keys to those jobs are: corporate giants.

An experienced trial lawyer like Damon could earn more than $200,000 a year if he were willing to represent oil companies, tech giants or multinational employers. In contrast, it is not uncommon for do-gooder lawyers to have to work an extra job. And what does the voice in the public servant’s ear say? “You should go work for someone who will pay you lots of money so you can get out from under these loans, and you don’t have to be poor.”

What’s the future of all this student loan debt? “Actually, that’s a $1.5 trillion question,” said Dr. Elizabeth Shermer, a Loyola University professor and student loan expert, referring to all outstanding student debt as of 2018. “This is basically the worst financial product ever. You can’t repossess someone’s education; it’s not like a foreclosure or something. And it’s not just students anymore. It’s parents and even grandparents. At a certain point, someone has to pay.”

Phil Schuman, director of Indiana University’s Office of Financial Literacy, is one of the few people working full-time to right the ship. “Through our services, such as peer-to-peer financial education, an online financial education platform and some broader institutional initiatives, such as the issuance of debt letters, a focus on college savings by promoting 529 accounts and completing college in four years, we’ve seen a 19-percent ($126.4 million) reduction in student loan borrowing in the last six years.” A good start, but the outlook for those already mired in debt isn’t great. “While the repayment options out there for student debt are helpful, often they just allow somebody to be in debt for longer periods of time without seeing much progress. We tell people to put as much as they can afford toward the debt — above the minimum — and not necessarily subscribe to the minimum.  Of course, all of this is tricky to say because there are lots of people who need an additional raise, tax refund, etc. just to get by.”

All this might lead rational, thinking people to ask, “Is higher education even worth it?” And that’s the point. If you are poor, and you want to be educated, the price is often decades of working extra hard to put lots of money in the pocket of someone else who doesn’t have to work at all. You will wear the golden handcuffs, or you will stay poor. While college may not be for everyone, making it very expensive keeps regular folks away — folks who might invent a way out of the debt crisis or a new guillotine or both at once. For now, an ounce of prevention (as Schuman prescribes) seems the only real way to save a pound of flesh. • 

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. He recently launched “Midwesticism,” a short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: