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Students Managing Their Own Loans?

Everywhere I go now I hear tales of anguish, anger and fear from college students who are facing years of debt payments after they graduate. Like so many systems in our culture, invented with at least the partial aim of enhancing freedom and democracy, the student loan system has become a means of debt slavery and social engineering.

Think of the early days of television and the hopes for its ability to educate, communicate and entertain. My presumption is that the inventors of TV did not foresee how it could be used – and would be – for promoting conformity, mass marketing, mind control, apathy, the destruction of citizenship and community, shorter attention spans, and propaganda. (Did I miss something?) Our free airwaves became another expression of corporate freedom. One can not overestimate how social and personal behavior was changed and shaped by television, and largely not for the betterment of people or their communities.

And I doubt that the inventors of tractors and combines, who surely knew that increasing the scale of farm production would increase efficiency as well as profit, also realized that industrial farming could lead to customer fast food addictions to sugar, salt and fat, exponentially increasing profit not just for the food industry but for the “health” industry. And, in terms of addiction, did the cell phone entrepreneurs anticipate the obsession of people with these devices, how many they could sell, how often be replaced, and how potent a device for advertising?

On a plane last week from Philadelphia to Indianapolis, I sat next to a young man who will graduate from Purdue this spring with a degree in hotel management. He admitted to me that he never reads anymore. He doesn’t have time to read because he is checking his phone, texting his friends and updating his Facebook page. When I talked to him about the work I do, what I learn from books, he was very disturbed about what he might be missing but confessed he did not think he had the discipline to spend less time with his phone.

I asked him about his school loans. He said, looking back, it would have been much smarter for him to have gone to a state school in California where his family lives and where he would have paid a fraction of the tuition he paid at Purdue. But he has already been hired by a hotel consulting company, so he expects he’ll be able to make his loan payments. He’s one of the lucky ones.

Many of the college students I meet are followed through their college years by the rumbling dark cloud of approaching debt payment. They talk to me about how this feels like social engineering. An art student tells me she changed her major to graphic design because she has a much better chance of getting work at a design or advertising firm that will pay her debt – a better prospect than trying to make it as an artist. She is typical. A student wanting to do social justice law tells me he is hoping to be hired by a corporate firm. One after another, students tell me that they have to choose professions that will pay the interest on their loans. They can’t possibly go into some of the more idealistic professions they know are better for society.

Who wins here? Is society better off? Or just the debt industry? We have learned recently that students now hold over one trillion in debt – more than all our credit card debt. Aren’t our kids (and our culture) being negatively shaped by this debt as surely as they are by the insistence on standardized testing that prepares them to fit into slots in an unsustainable economy? Both debt service and obsessive testing are meant to support a status quo that does not include the welfare of our children as part of its bottom line. Loans for college may have begun as a great idea to make college possible for middle class and poorer students, but, increasingly, the loans have become a means of controlling their lives rather than freeing their minds.

I met with the dean of the college where I was in residence and asked for his views on the debt problem. He said that it’s rigged for the benefit of the banks and the rich. He said the rich kids who don’t need loans come out of college free to make the kinds of choices the middle income and poorer kids can’t. In fact, many of the rich students can foresee making fortunes by going right into the financial institutions which prey on poorer students. The dean didn’t have a plan to change the situation.

I do. Why don’t students form a non-profit co-op where students loan tuition money to other students. Get the banks out of it. These revolving funds could be specific to individual colleges, regional or national. Many of the existing loans are designed to hook kids into a debt culture they may not be able to escape from. Once hooked, they are not likely to become the visionary critical thinkers we need to solve our massive social, economic and environmental problems. Let’s help young people manage their education loans for their own welfare. Students benefiting students.

Most rich countries in the world do not burden students with the kind of debt the U.S. does. U.S. taxpayer money that could go to subsidize education supports our military empire. As harmful and unjust as this situation is, it is not likely to change soon. But the system by which students finance an education can change immediately. They need to take control of it. I’m not an economist, but it seems clear to me that the existing models of worker-owned businesses, credit unions and co-ops maintained to enhance community, general health, and the environment – rather than extract wealth for building inequality – provide the obvious models for student-run loan programs.

The educational reward of college should be the freedom for young people to become of real service to community and to the future, not the freedom to become a slave to a debt economy that values only how hard they can work to pay their debt. The reward of a college education should be a better world for all of us.

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