Opinion: Students not consumers: the student debt crisis


John Hess is a senior political science major. Contact him at [email protected].

John Hess

We are on a sinking ship—you, me, your freshman roommate, everybody. The seas may seem calm, but make no mistake. We’re going down. There’s an iceberg ahead. We have watched from the deck, smiling and shrugging our shoulders, as it grew on the horizon. This is the student debt crisis—the bubble waiting to pop. Student loan debt in this country now exceeds $1 trillion; that’s more than credit card or auto debt. Default rates for student loan payments are notoriously high and the current legal framework means you can’t get rid of student loan debt by filing bankruptcy.

What has caused this catastrophe? One reason is the “for-profit”-ization of our nonprofit educational institutions. Nonprofit schools are increasingly adopting capital “B” business models, which are detrimental to the goals of education. Some forms of competition between universities are great. Competition to improve classroom outcomes and student job placement rates are wonderful. Unfortunately, competition too often takes the form of expensive ad campaigns and campus renovations, which contribute nothing in terms of education but cost millions. This mentality combined with the huge amount of federally subsidized student loans results in the government heavily subsidizing this continued irresponsible spending. It is, of course, students who inevitably foot the bill. At the root of this dilemma is the false assumption that education is a commodity to be bought and sold like any other.

So what is education? Conventional wisdom would say that it’s an investment. You take loans now to increase your income down the line. This would seem to be confirmed by the approximately $1 million dollar lifetime pay increase of someone with a Bachelor’s degree versus someone with a high school diploma. However, this notion falls flat when one considers that not all work that requires a college education is necessarily well paying or even motivated by personal enrichment (teachers, social workers, etc.). This definition is also deficient in that it reduces our complex and dynamic college experiences to a single wage differential. What is education, then? An adventure?

This may be hard to swallow, but education is education. It’s not like anything else. It’s not just another widget. It is a specific kind of service that deserves a specific kind of treatment.

What we receive at Kent State is not a traditional good or service. It’s not something neatly packaged and handed to us. What we receive here is no more or less than access to knowledge. If there is one birthright which we are all owed, it is education. It is access to this impossibly deep, unimaginably vast reservoir of human wisdom—the last vestige of the global commons that can never and should never be closed off or guarded.

A full treatment of this problem can hardly fit in this space, and I won’t pretend to have an answer. If you are interested in learning more about the student debt crisis or getting involved in a solution, the Ohio Student Association will be screening the documentary “Ivory Tower” Monday in the Kiva at 7 p.m. A discussion will follow, and petitions aimed at finding solutions to the debt crisis at Kent State will be available. Please turn out and invite your friends.

If you have any thoughts, feel free to stop me on campus and share. I’d be glad to