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Penniless Under the Elms

The first time I stepped on to a college campus in high school, I just knew I had to go one day. The bucolic setting, the peace, the Greek revival style  buildings, the knots of students roaming around, the frisbee playing on the green, the beer and the coeds, my God, the coeds! The unspoken promise was that with a four year degree in hand from an accredited college, you would somehow gain a toehold in the much feared, “Real World”, complete with monthly bills, a mortgage or rent, car payments, annual taxes, quarterly taxes and a retirement plan. You would soon doff the university sweatshirt for an adult wardrobe, climb into your first new car and start working for an early retirement, occasional travel, the odd class reunion and you would do so in middle to upper middle class respectability. I’m here to tell you with more than enough hindsight in my possession to comment. We wuz robbed!

Student loan debt has surpassed mortgage and credit card debt as the leading river of bloody red ink in this country. With exceptions for the Ivy covered few and people in the hard sciences, college students are merely filters for the university bottom line. They take out the loans, the colleges and banks get the money or interest and former students spend most or all of their lives servicing the debt since their degrees did not result in decent jobs or any job at all. Even worse, many students default on their college loans, thus destroying their credit and making the reasons they got a degree in the first place irrelevant. Students are filters, like the one you throw out after the coffee is gone, like the oil filter after an oil change, student lives are disposable in deference to the corporate bottom line. This is no accident. This is the profit model. The University of Phoenix is printing money with this philosophy. From the ashes of largely useless diplomas rise rich renumeration for the board of directors and the university president. I am not asserting that every “for profit” degree is worthless but enough of them are to make you wonder what the swells at the annual corporate meeting are really discussing.

As related in an article by Gloria Goodale of the Chistian Science Monitor of April 25, groups are organizing against this tsunami of student debt that surpassed one trillion dollars on that same day. A group called lTD, short for One Trillion Dollar Debt, is spreading the word about this largest spiraling crisis. Quoting from Goodale’s article, Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, was quoted as saying, “Debts are rewritten and written off on Wall Street all the time but when it comes to little people, they are not allowed to renegotiate the debt.” ITD offers a four point plan for the federal government to deal with student debt. Ross added that student debt for NYU students was 40 percent above the average. Here’s the proposed plan:

1. The Federal Government should cover all higher education costs.

2. Student loans should be made at zero interest.

3. College and university books should be opened for greater accountability.

4. A one time “jubilee” should be declared to free students from their debt.

This list is too generous even for my taste. The government covering all costs at public institutions and private is simply unrealistic. Containing the overall cost of a four year education has to be a starting point, in my opinion, before Uncle Sam’s checkbook can cover everyone. Even then, taxes would have to rise for students  to keep their wallets, or daddy’s wallet, out of sight. Parts of Europe pay for higher education but they use to have a non college track for people as well. A college degree for every American is wishfull thinking and there are many people making good livings without one. I’d rather be a plumber who can buy groceries instead of a jobless PhD. who can quote Goethe in the original German while subsisting on Raman Noodles, just like his freshman year diet.

Greater transparency is a no brainer. If government was to foot the bill, then it should have the right to examine the books and that would be a significant expense to bear all by itself. The idea of  a”jubilee” is not so far fetched. The recent financial bailout was done by creating cash out of thin air, an unpopular sentiment but true. If they can create legal tender out of nothing to rescue banks, then they can wipe out bad student paper just as easily. Foreign debts are forgiven routinely by the federal government. Are other countries more deserving of a clean slate than Americans, who are paying for this government to begin with? The zero interest on loans idea sounds great but no private bank or credit union would do business that way, leaving it to good old Uncle to play lender too. If I sound too skeptical here, I’ll cop to it but the current debt morass is, here’s that word again, unsustainable. A group called Occupy Student Debt, an organizaion that the lTD supports, is advocating the passage of  HR 4170. It’s called the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012. Sounds peachy but it’s an election year.

If only college students voted.

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