24 February 2016

Student Loans and "Free" Higher Education

I've posted many times about America's student loan problem. I've addressed the law that student loans are well-nigh impossible to eliminate in bankruptcy (here), although I've also observed that there may be some cracks in the nondischargeability wall (here). I've also written about the peculiar way in which the student loan programs subsidize foolish choices, educational scams, and ultimately drive up the cost of higher education (here, here, and here).

Higher education has become part of the battlefield in the race for nomination as the Democratic Party candidate for president. To the best of my knowledge, the Republican candidates aren't talking about education or student loans but Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton certainly are.

But here's the rub: whether it's Clinton's easier loan-payback terms or Sanders's free higher education for all, what are students and taxpayers getting for their money? Rather than wading into the swamp myself, I'll direct folks to two blog posts that address these concerns in significant detail.

First, go here to read Patrick Deneen's post "Res Idiotica" that painfully illustrates the un-education for which we pay billions.
My students are know-nothings.  They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent.  But their minds are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten it origins and aims, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference about itself.

Deneen is not a crank (he currently teaches at Notre Dame and has taught at Princeton), and his observations of students at elite American universities rings true. Modern-day college graduates are not stupid but they are the products of a federal "No Child Left Behind" program of primary and secondary "education" to learn the skills of taking standardized multiple choice tests as well as undergraduate programs that do little more than train for evanescent jobs in the service economy.

Well, one might ask, if what passes for education is such thin gruel, why does college cost as much as it does? Why does the cost of education continue to rise while its quality continues to decline? Why are students incurring such inordinate student-loan debt?

As James K.A. Smith writes in USA Today here, the educational-industrial complex spends ever-growing sums for "experiences" instead of education:
The story behind the story of student debt inflation is the inflation of the university into an expanding behemoth of goods and services that have little to do with education and more to do with expectations of coddled comfort. Rather than being an institution centered on education, the university now aspires to be a total institution that meets every felt need. The campus is now a sprawling complex of fitness centers and cineplexes, food courts and gargantuan coliseums. Students aren’t taking out loans to pay for an education; they’re effectively borrowing money to pay exorbitant, short-lived taxes for the privilege of living in a scripted, cocooned city.

I would appreciate learning what our candidates for America’s highest elective office have to say about this. Could any of them provide any rationale for education beyond the utilitarian? Could any of them specify what it is that an educated person should know? I am not, however, holding my breath for any answers.


  1. If you think that only utilitarian education is worth paying for, why the market failure? Why does everyone seem to be competing to build lazy rivers? Why aren't there more RyanAir-like education providers?

  2. There are many colleges that provide exemplary education. Many school, however, are in the credentialing business. In other words, we've become more interested in the proxies for education than education itself because proxies, by definition, are easier to measure.

  3. Good articLe