When Math Bites Back


I came across an interesting article that’s been floating around for the past few days about student loan debt, and decided that some of its arguments were worth examining. Original in quotes.

“Go to college”, they told me. “It’s the only way you can get a good, well-paying job.”

Keep this opening line in mind.

I graduated college in 2007. The economic downturn started right before I graduated. I majored in English, not exactly what most people consider a ‘marketable’ or ‘practical’ degree? Some might say I was already thrown to the wolves before I even finished college.

If the rationale he was given to go to college (in the opening line) was to get a good, well-paying job, it is difficult to see how the author was ‘thrown to wolves,’ since he was the one who presumably went into college to get a good, well-paying job but then decided on a major that admittedly has low marketability.

Did I mention I went to a somewhat expensive private school? Yes, I know what you’re about to say: I’ve heard the arguments about how I could have gone to a cheaper school – or a school where I got better financial aid – many times at this point.

That one has heard certain arguments before does not entail they are not good arguments or that making a school choice one cannot afford is not still a bad choice.

I did what many students in their last year of high school do: I went to the school where I felt I was being called, and, honestly, I do not regret my four years at my undergraduate institution one bit. When I graduated college, I owed nearly $50,000 in student loan debt and was unemployed for almost six months before I finally found a low-paying office job.

If the author does not regret his decision of school choice and major, then might one assume he does not regret taking out $50,000 in loans, since the former was made possible by the latter?

“Can’t find a job? Well, you should have majored in something more ‘practical’, like economics or business or medicine.” Yeah, that would be great…if those were the subjects where my skills and passions lie. They’re not.

In many ways I can appreciate both sides of the argument here; after all, I fully believe that education is a good in and of itself irrespective of its utility in the market.

On the other hand, some types of education do have a certain level of marketability, and there is no bright line of demarcation between the two. Neither approach to education is necessarily better than the other nor necessarily exclusive of the other; the critical point is that whether one is pursuing learning for its own sake or for its market value, one is never exempt from math.

In other words, whatever value or use one applies to the pursuit of education, one needs to be able to pay for it.

“Well, have you considered graduate school? That will lead to a great job!” I’ll be graduating seminary in just a few short months. I will have a Master’s degree, which the generations before me assured me would open so many doors upon graduation.

Again, one detects a bit of a disconnect here. The author admits that his subjects of interest have relatively little market value, but then couches the choice to pursue them in terms of the marketability of education.

But even more than that, I felt called to go to seminary – and I felt called to my particular seminary (San Francisco Theological Seminary), despite the fact that I received little to no financial aid. Thus, I will graduate seminary with close to six figures worth of student loan debt.

It might be worth noting that a calling also does not exempt one from math. One need not even quibble with his sense of being called- I take his word for it- but that does not entail that one has to pursue that calling in a particular manner (e.g., utilizing massive amounts of student loans) or at a certain time (he could have presumably put off seminary until he could pay for it). Since we are contingent beings (and moreover embodied beings), any calling simply cannot preempt reality. In this case a calling to a particular seminary entails being able to pay for the education at that seminary in one way or another; and in this case not all means are equally preferable, as an additional $50,000 in student loans illustrates.

I imagine at least a few of you are familiar with the difficulties of the call process in the PC(USA) right now. Churches are closing their doors left and right. There are fewer and fewer pastoral jobs out there and more people seeking those jobs. Churches that were once thriving are now having a hard time paying a salary that can cover all of a pastor’s living expenses, especially when you take into account those student loan payments.

Again, it seems a curious disconnect that the author intersperses rationales about the market value of education in a story about pursuing education that the author admits has very little market value.

Perhaps you can see my dilemma here. Here I am, about to graduate from a very prestigious master’s degree program, saddled with student loan debt and the constant worry that I won’t be able to find a job once I graduate.

I’m not sure I see the dilemma, since a dilemma entails a difficult choice. But due to the non-bankruptable nature of the loans the author decided to take on, there isn’t exactly a choice involved here. It’s an extremely unpleasant situation, to be sure, but not really a dilemma.

So, what are we doing about it?

Who is “we?” Did someone co-sign his loan? Actually, in some respects he is right to ask this question, since federally backed student loans do practically entail that every taxpayer co-signed his loan…

Is the PC(USA) doing anything to address this crisis? I attended General Assembly last summer, and I was disheartened by the lack of talk about student loan debt for seminary graduates. Certainly I heard messages about changes seminaries are making to try to ensure that their students graduate with little to no additional student debt. And that’s good news! But where do those of us who have already incurred all that debt fit into the picture?

Did the PC(USA) make him sign his name on the loan documents? It is interesting that he is asking this question of a denomination which he already admits is closing its doors left and right and which- on the local level- often struggles to pay salaries that cover living expenses for their pastors. Given that there are more pastors looking for jobs than there are jobs, and given that having to pay salaries that can cover massive student loan balances makes it hard for local churches to even bring pastors on, from the marketability standpoint (which is part of the rationale employed throughout) it would seem that to have as little student loan debt as possible would make one a far more desirable candidate. Did none of this figure into the decision of adding an additional $50,000 in loans for seminary in a denomination which the author admits has trouble paying its pastors’ salaries?

What has our government done to address this issue? I would argue: absolutely nothing.

Actually, the government has been instrumental in creating a situation wherein the author could be this deep in non-dischargeable debt. After all, if the government did not guarantee federal student loans at the massive levels one can get them, it would be far more unlikely that a 17 or 18 year old with no assets and little employment history could procure a $50,000 loan, or that a 21 or 22  year old with $50,000 in debt and a low-paying job could borrow another $50,000 to pursue an advanced degree which even the author admits has a low probability of ROI.

That being the case, would one really expect (or even want!) the government to be the one fixing the very problem it helped to create?

Things are no better now than they were when I graduated college eight years ago. I, like so many in my generation, voted for Obama hoping for large-scale change under his leadership, and yet he’s been stalled at every turn by a Congress who, judging by their approval ratings at the very least, doesn’t seem too preoccupied with caring for the people they claim to represent.

If things are no better than when the author graduated from college, one might wonder why he decided to take on even more student loan debt in pursuing a Master’s degree that would have little marketability and for which potential jobs are scarcer with every year.

As I write, 40 million Americans carry student loan debt. That’s 40 million people just like me who are shackled with debt that can never be discharged in bankruptcy and is almost impossible to get forgiven.

Of course, missing here is that much of this student loan debt was made possible precisely because it is not bankrupt-able. Otherwise many of the 40 million would have been unable to get the substantial loans that federally backed student loans provide. (I would argue this would ultimately be a good thing, but that goes a bit beyond the scope here.)

Yes, I chose to go to college and graduate school, with much support and encouragement from friends and family. Yes, the economy tanked right before I graduated from college. And yes, I am graduating seminary at a time in our nation’s history when religion is statistically becoming less and less important to people’s lives.

Keep this in mind.

So, is it my fault?

An interesting rhetorical move is being made here, in that the author is trying to frame the question in a manner that obviates the real question, which has nothing to with “fault,” but everything to do with “responsibility.” The better question is: “Am I responsible for the choices I made?”

I think that has already been answered in the affirmative, given the previous admissions.

Should I have ‘known better’ – or done something more financially responsible than get an education?

Is the author really asking if he should have been more financially responsible, as if being “more financially responsible” is something pejorative?

At any rate, another rhetorical sleight of hand is at work here; actually, a logical fallacy, since a false choice is being offered between an education and what might be more financially responsible. After all, if one actually has the cash to pay for higher education it is generally more financially responsible to pursue higher education, since in many cases it can actually lead to greater opportunities and greater earning potential, if that is one’s motivation for pursuing higher education.

I personally think that’s the wrong question.

Well sure, if the question is the fallacy just proposed by the author, then yes. But if the question is the real question (rather than the pejorative one)- am I responsible for my choices? – then such a question is hardly the wrong one.

Chalking the plight of the 40 million Americans shackled by student debt up to ‘poor choice’ by individuals sounds a lot like blaming the victims. Such an approach does nothing to address the root cause of the problem: the fact that we as a society unilaterally encourage people to go to pursue higher education but fail to support them with adequate financial assistance.

I would agree that there is a lot broken in the whole system of higher education, that brokenness being in large part due to the government’s interference by means of federally backed student loans. And I would also agree that there is a lot of societal pressure to pursue higher education. I would quibble that there is a failure to support with financial assistance; the 1 trillion+ in student loan debt is one way that educational opportunities have been greatly expanded (albeit at enormous cost).

However, there is another fallacy at work here, in that simply because one is pressured by peers or society to make a poor choice, it does not entail that one is not therefore responsible for that poor choice. St. Paul says that “Bad company corrupts good character,” which means that there are things that influence our choices and can even persuade us to make poor ones. That is why one does not allow one’s kids to hang out with certain kids, because they generally become like the friends they have. It is no less true for adults, since we all tend to become like the people we are around the most. This obviously also happens at a cultural and societal level, but in the midst of all of these influences we are still responsible for our choices, which makes it absolutely that more critical that we seriously think through the choices we make and critically evaluate them, especially when the consequences and responsibilities they entail can have such enormous impact on our future.

So yes, we can and should fully critique the brokenness of the system of higher education and the ease with which people can become so deeply indebted, but that does not preclude locating responsibility with the one whose name is signed on the promissory note. That 40 million people might make the same poor choice is hardly out of the realm of possibility, since humans have a long and sordid history of making magnificently poor choices, even against their own best interest, and especially when faced with the pressure of a society which makes the same poor choice, encourages it and enables it.

Finally, the language of ‘victim’ here is quite overwrought. After all, it is not as if student loan indebtedness is like being the victim of an internet scam where one is out the money with nothing to show for it, or even like being the victim of a more traditional crime, Rather, the indebtedness was entered into willingly, and for the express purpose of receiving a certain good; namely, an education. And in this case the author not only received the education of his choice in his undergraduate studies, but will also be receiving the prestigious Master’s degree of his choice. The price tag is, of course, fairly overwhelming, but the author admits to making the choices he did, and did (and will) actually receive what he took out the loans to purchase. In this sense it is difficult to see how such a scenario entails victimhood.

Granted, for the undergraduate portion it is understandable how a 17 or 18 year old could be laboring under naïveté and not understand the repercussions of taking out such sizable debts. And given the substantial societal pressure towards higher education, it is also understandable that there might be a feeling of being taken for a ride by the system.

However, if this is the case, one might wonder why, after experiencing this sense of victimization after undergraduate work and only being able to find low-paying work, the author decided to double-down on the same action and apparently allow himself to be taken for a ride by the same system which victimized him before?

It seems to me that we’ve bought into the lie that student loan debt is brought on by the individual person and not by the fact that our system doesn’t encourage or even allow for any other model.

Again, another false choice. Why must these two possibilities be mutually exclusive? I would also take issue with the supposed lack of any other model. After all, the author admitted to choosing educational opportunities he couldn’t afford, as opposed to ones that might have been more within reach. Additionally, in what sense was he forced to choose the major he studied or the prestigious seminary he is attending? Since his name in on the debts, and since he is the one who received the goods for which they were taken on, how is this student loan debt not brought on by the individual, in this case, the author himself?

Who in middle-class America has $100,000 saved up that they can just give away to the institution of their choice so they won’t incur any student loan debt?

Simply because many don’t does not entail that any cannot; after all, investing $3000 into a 529 for 17 or 18 years would allow one to save more than $100,000, something which is not out of reach for the middle class.

But an even deeper fallacy is the author’s universalization of his own choices, as if the route he took into his education is the only viable model. For example, had he not chosen to pursue a Master’s he would only have $50,000 in debt, a number which is even more accessible to the middle class if forethought and wise financial planning are involved. Attending in-state schools, finding alternative living arrangements to on-campus living and taking as many courses from low-cost community colleges are also other ways to help mitigate the price tag of higher education. But all of those are choices that must be made, rather than fatalistically falling into a preconceived model.

You know what I think might stimulate the economy? Automatically cancelling every single outstanding student loan! Go ahead, call me crazy; people have been responding to my proposal that way for years.

And now the fun begins.

But think about it for a minute, will you? Cancelling student loan debt would mean upwards of 40 million people who would suddenly have money to spend on things that they couldn’t before – things like houses, cars, plane tickets, you name it!

Does the author not realize that the vast bulk of student loan debt is federally backed, meaning that the only way it could be cancelled is if the government paid the loans in full? But since the government can only generate income via taxation, the 1 trillion+ dollars that would be required to cancel all federal student loan debt would entail massive additional taxation.

Think about how fast the economy would improve if 40 million Americans suddenly had more disposable income.

The economy would definitely improve if 40 million Americans had more disposable income, but canceling student loan debt is certainly not the way to do that.

But of course, that would never happen, would it? That would mean valuing the people taking out loans for their education over the corporations doing the lending! And, as Citizens United never ceases to remind us, corporations are people too.

More rhetorical nonsense. Does the author not realize that the expansion of federally backed student loans and the relative ease with which they can be obtained were all under the guise of valuing people and providing for more expansive educational opportunities? Student loan lenders provide the massive amounts of federally backed student loans because they are essentially given a blank check by the government; otherwise fewer loans would actually be issued since many of the people taking out student loans would not otherwise have the means to obtain them.

However, given that the vast majority of the student loans issued are predicated on the government’s guarantee of them (hence, the reason they are not dischargeable), the author would actually be proposing an extremely immoral thing for the government to simply “cancel” them. As aforementioned, the only way this could legitimately occur would be for the government to pay the loans in full (and all the consequences therein). But does the author truly want another round of massive taxation that would affect not only the very middle class he wants to help, but would also be an incredible burden to future generations? He rightly decries the previous generation’s insistence that higher education is the way to prosperity, but at the very least he had a choice about pursuing that and taking on the loans he did. In the scenario he is proposing, future generations would be saddled with financial obligations in the form of taxation that they will have no choice in. That hardly seems to be valuing people.

Let’s look at the bigger picture here. We have a nation full of people who can barely afford to pay their bills because of student loan debt. We have a nation full of people who have no choice but to work at unfulfilling jobs just to pay those bills.

All of this is true, but what is missing is that student loan debt doesn’t simply happen; rather, it is taken on by each individual with the obligation to pay it back. Does it create a lot of future problems? Of course it does, but that is often the consequence of trying to purchase something one cannot afford.

And, increasingly, we have a nation full of people who defer or reject higher education altogether, along with the opportunity it offers for fulfilling employment, because they don’t want to be shackled by the loans they’ll need to finance it. And we wonder why we are the most overworked and most depressed nation on the planet…

The author returns to his fallacious mode of reasoning here, once again presenting a false choice between higher education and the opportunity for fulfilling employment. And again he seems to treat being financially responsible as if it carries some sort of pejorative connotation.

In fact, there is a great irony here, for while the author just a few sentences back lamented the societal pressure brought to bear upon people to pursue higher education, here he essentially argues along from the same preconceptions; hence the link between the opportunity for fulfilling employment and higher education.

To be sure, I understand the sentiment here because I once had the same sort of fallacious perspective. Like the author, I wanted to pursue graduate studies, and even got accepted into prestigious universities. Yet all of the programs to which I was accepted carried large price tags, especially the ones I was particularly interested in overseas. Very little of the financial aid I was planning on panned out, and at the end of the day I was forced by reality (and the fear of accumulating more than a quarter million in debt) to forego those degree programs.

It was honestly quite devastating at the time, since I had conflated higher education with the prospect of fulfilling employment or a meaningful life. And for a time I did the 20-something version of pouting about it, sort of drifting aimlessly because I deemed there to be little point in trying any more since my dream had been shattered by math.

But eventually I came to overcome the fallacy in my thinking, and after the fog of disappointment dissipated I was able to more accurately assess my motivations for wanting to pursue the studies I had applied for. I discovered that what I was really interested in was the intellectual value of the subjects and the life of the mind that study often entails. And I also discovered that that need not be my employment for me to still pursue those goals. In my case I found that we live in a time when information is extraordinarily easy and inexpensive to come by, and that was really what I was interested in. My undergraduate studies and my own particular temperament meant that I was able to pursue the same sort of studies and information easily enough on my own, without having to incur extraordinary amounts of debt to do so.

I also found that my career goals began to shift as I discovered other gifts and talents, and I eventually moved into a field that was completely unrelated to what I so desperately desired when I was younger. In the midst of my disappointment I felt that my dreams were gone and that I was stuck, but in retrospect I realized that had I pursued those dreams and the prospect of what I initially thought would be a fulfilling career track and that I thought I was called to, I really would have been stuck since I would have had enormous debts that would have limited my options or forced me into career paths that now I would probably find tedious.

And the beauty now is that since I am not saddled with large student loan debts, I can actually have the option of pursuing those types of studies in the future, because I can now plan and save for them if I ever so choose.

Here’s what I am trying to get at: Our system is broken. Our system is not designed to help those who need it most. So let’s demand a conversation!

I would actually agree, which is why that conversation should probably involve phasing out federally backed student loans, as well as pleading with those wanting to pursue higher education to not go into debt to do so.

Will we call on Congress to cancel all outstanding student loan debt? Or, following on Obama’s free community college initiative, will we seek possibilities to drastically reduce or eliminate the cost of all higher education?

So the author wants to call on Congress to raise taxes on the middle class and saddle future generations with debt they have choice but to pay?

We need to have a serious conversation about student loan debt. It needs to start now, and it needs to start at the grass-roots level.

If the conversation needs to start at the grass-roots level (which I agree it needs to), then is this not a serious disconnect from the aforementioned assertion that student loan debt is not brought on by the individual (as grass-roots level as it gets) but rather by the ‘system?’

What would happen if congregations had a greater awareness of just how much seminary costs when they encouraged people to go to seminary?

Is a seminary degree required in the PC(USA) for ordination? If so, and given that many of the congregations don’t have the funds to even pay salaries (as aforementioned), I’m not sure exactly what the author expects to happen. Stop encouraging people to go to seminary? Relax the requirements for ordination? Those would actually probably be very good (and probably inevitable) questions to ask.

How about if seminaries were more intentional in educating students about how to manage crushing debt post-graduation – especially in the increasingly long periods between graduation and finding a job?

Or even better, what if seminaries were more intentional about educating prospective students about the market realities of the education received vis-a-vis the ability to pay back the loans?

What would it look like for congregations, as part of their compensation plan for pastors, took on a portion of responsibility a pastor’s educational debt?

Firstly, didn’t the author already mention that fewer and fewer congregations are even able to pay the salaries of their pastors, in part because of the salary requirements due to the student loan debts? Secondly, since the limited nature of the available compensation has already been elucidated, what does it matter part if of the compensation is earmarked for student loan repayment or not, since it would (in more and more congregations) entail the same inadequate compensation? Thirdly, given that the people taking out the loans are the ones responsible for them, should they not bear the lion’s share of responsibility for determining how to utilize their compensation towards the repayment of their debts?

This is how we change the system. This is how we stimulate our economy. This is how we claim ownership over our own lives.

Is the author’s argument that the way to claim ownership over one’s life is to claim victimization for the same poor choice made twice and then have the same government which enabled those poor choices to saddle him and future generations with more debt, while asking congregations which admittedly have limited money to spend even more money they don’t have to mitigate his poor choices?

It starts with a conversation; it starts by asking the hard questions.

Is the author willing to have the same sorts of hard questions posed to him? Like the ones he waves aside in the course of this article?

Questions like: if we can spend $640 billion dollars on defense spending, why can’t we find the money to better support public education?

Any money to be found in this scenario (i.e., government funding) only comes via taxation, which will fall particularly heavily on the millions in the middle class who already struggle with public education costs. At the same time, in the form of backing federal student loans the government already essentially ‘supports’ public education by making student loans available to those who would otherwise be unable to obtain them.

I know that I, for one, would much rather my tax dollars go toward supporting the education of others than bombing Iraq!

And if his proposal were to become reality, he will have a lot of tax dollars going to support education!

This conversation has to start at home. And for Christians, where is home if not in our churches? Let’s start having those conversations now, before the next generation starts college. We can make a better system for them. They deserve it. We deserve it. Our country deserves it. Let’s bring back some of our Reformed tradition and take our commitment to the “common good” seriously!

I actually wholeheartedly agree with this closing thought, although that conversation definitely needs to involve warnings to the next generation against debt from those who have already suffered the pain of being burdened with large amounts of student loan debts. This conversation also needs to have a great deal of personal responsibility leavened in, for regardless of how broken the system is we each have to make good choices, and many times those choices need to be initially tempered by reality before they are eventually run aground by it.

In many ways the most unfortunate aspect of this article is that the author has a wonderful opportunity to use the pain of his experience with student loan debt as a way to advise the next generation on how to approach vocation, higher education and the management (or more ideally, the avoidance) of debt. Critiques of the broken system of higher education are certainly needed, but on the grass roots level the more critical need is to educate the next generation about the realities and pain of student loan debt, and how the choices they make right out of high school and beyond can have serious negative ramifications for a good portion of their lives and can stifle the freedom and opportunities they could have, rather than the avoidance of responsibility, the overwrought label of victimization, and proposals for federal action that are simply not serious and would have devastating economic repercussions.

That seems to be conversation we should be having, for the best way to change the system at the grass roots level is to raise up a generation that is not bound by the system’s strictures or burdened by debts, and thus has enormous economic freedom and opportunity. Those of us who have felt the pain of being unduly burdened by debt and thereby locked out of those opportunities do have the responsibility to the next generation to help them avoid our poor choices and make good ones.

That is how we take our commitment to the common good seriously.

1 comment

  • Very nice. Now that I’m responsibly putting every extra dollar to my student debt…my resentment and blame at others are replaced with a simple desire to teach my own children fiscal responsibility (so the cycle is not repeated another generation).

    Not only is the borrower responsible for his debt and vocation choice, he’s responsible to pay it! Frustrating to see so many people want some easy out. A poor system doesn’t absolve us from owning our stupid choices.

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