An article at The American Spectator raises some interesting points for those of us in the higher ed. racket. It responds to a recent NYT story that chronicles the difficulty faced by a young woman who borrowed 100 grand, which she dropped on an NYU degree in “Religious and Women’s Studies.”
This has led to various wise folks nodding about a higher-ed bubble akin to what has happened in the world of real estate. I’ve talked about some consequences of the real-esate bubble a little bit here, but I think the Spectator‘s piece raises some interesting points.
Like the deadb — strategic defaulters — I talked about elsewhere, what we see is an effort by people who took risks to blame others for the consequences of their decisions. This time, the sympathetic Times writer points the finger at colleges and lenders:
[U]niversities like N.Y.U. enrolled students without asking many questions about whether they could afford a $50,000 annual tuition bill. Then the colleges introduced the students to lenders who underwrote big loans without any idea of what the students might earn someday — just like the mortgage lenders who didn’t ask borrowers to verify their incomes[…]
It is utterly depressing that there are so many people like her facing decades of payments, limited capacity to buy a home and a debt burden that can repel potential life partners. For starters, it’s a shared failure of parenting and loan underwriting.
But perhaps the biggest share lies with colleges and universities because they have the most knowledge of the financial aid process. And I would argue that they had an obligation to counsel students like Ms. Munna, who got in too far over their heads.
Time to draw on personal experience again. When I decided to go back and earn a Ph.D., I knew employment figures in English were dire, and that even calling them “dire” might be wildly optimistic. I walked away from a career that paid me, though not handsomely, considerably more than a graduate student makes. I did it anyway, and even took some loans for expenses like child care, but Mrs. M and I knew that we were taking a gamble on achieving a future amount of happiness. That’s the point — we knew, and took the responsibility on ourselves. But because we wanted to take calculated risks, we chose a doctoral program at a school that doesn’t get counted among the elites (no complaints here — my so-called “non-elite” program was filled with committed teachers and scholars who were intellectually honest, open minded, and committed to my success), lived as frugally as we could (I went without health insurance, for example — another risk I chose to accept), and waited a year after I was accepted in order to get the best available funding. I also chose a research area that I not only enjoyed, but figured would have a certain constant demand level — somebody has to teach Chaucer. Even then, my father told me, “This is a pretty ballsy move you’re pulling here.”
As a side note, I was counseled about my student loan debt. It was a hoop I was forced to jump through in order to get the loan, and I couldn’t get the check without signing off that I had been informed about my rights and responsibilities.
All things considered, I was lucky. I found a job on the tenure track, and the Mondo family survives. But the fact remains, we knew we were taking risks, and we hedged our bets as best we could. If we had failed? Life goes that way sometimes — we would have found some other way to get along. Like the line says in Zorba the Greek, “‘Take what you want, and pay for it,’ says God.” We did, and we do.
But what about our poor NYU alum from earlier? It looks as though she took an even longer bet than I did. Longshot bets don’t pay off too often — that’s what makes them longshots, and that’s why, if you’re sensible, you bet as little as you can get away with, and hedge that as much as you can.
And as the Spectator notes, the alternatives aren’t really enticing:
Picture university administrators parsing potential students’ tax returns, then advising them to lower their aspirations according to their economic background. (Class war!) How many minutes would it take for a gender harassment complaint to be issued against the infantilizing sexist who pulled aside a women’s studies major to inveigh, “You are in deep doo-doo, little girl”?
I don’t think some kind of educational redlining is the answer. But at the same time, the risk of failure is a cost of the freedom to try. Again, the temptation to play the victim card, and the culture that encourages it, are signs of a moral flaccidity. You’d think that might’ve been mentioned in one of those religious studies courses.