The Occupy Wall Street manifesto, originally drafted by Micah White of the Canadian Adbusters Media Foundation, called for someone—it is not clear whom—to “Forgive all student loan debt.” This was one of the steps that “can be done right now to rejuvenate democracy and economic justice in our country.” Our country presumably meant the United States, not Canada; though it is possible that OWS signals Ottawa’s territorial designs on its impoverished southern neighbor.
Evaporating $1-trillion in assets would certainly be a jubilee. But doing so would almost instantly put most American colleges and universities out of business. They pay a substantial portion of their operating expenses out of “current revenue,” and a substantial portion of that comes from the money that students borrow to pay tuition, room, and board.
All this time I’ve been thinking that American higher education had made a serious wrong turn when it transformed itself into something-for-everyone mass higher education. I’ve been arguing for the last five or six years that we need to rethink this model. We should, I’ve said, foster a greater variety of rewarding options for high school students so that they don’t think college (and college debt) is the only viable path toward prosperity. We should free online education from the morass of regulatory obstacles so that it competes fairly with traditional colleges. We should unleash that innovative spirit that would allow more colleges to offer stripped-down and therefore less expensive versions of a bachelor’s degree. We pay uncalculated but very large costs for the dominant model of American undergraduate education in which colleges offer a cornucopia of “electives”—that often add up to very little real education.
I’ve been predicting that if we took such steps, the overall number of colleges and universities would decline but that most would adapt. And I was cheered when a Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, and a colleague, Henry Eyring, published a major book, The Innovative University, making a similar case. Others have been making kindred points, perhaps most notably my Innovations colleague Richard Vedder.
Perhaps all of us have been thinking too small. The OWS Manifesto’s call, “Forgive all student loan debt,” would be a quicker answer. Exercise and dieting is one way to lose weight; anorexia is another.
The call for debt forgiveness is unlikely to find any serious political support. That call is interesting, however, in a variety of ways. It underscores how the higher education “bubble” is translating into a substantial grievance for many recent college graduates who find themselves unable to come to grips with current realities. And it pinpoints the financial structure of American higher education as a root problem. What we need is a way to rethink what happens to individuals after high school. Attempting to send everyone to college turns out to be a poor way to respect the ideals of personal freedom, intellectual autonomy, and human equality. Our one-size-fits-all approach offers only a veneer of choices and it results in educational mediocrity or something worse. It produces a mediocrity of both mind and practical skill, and it is typically a proud mediocrity that cannot comprehend its own stuntedness. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what contemporary higher education typically promises: wholeness, personal growth and sophistication.
Debt forgiveness, even if it came, wouldn’t relieve the misery of finding out that these were hollow promises. Disillusionment is what’s needed. What we see now among those OWS protesters focused on student loans is a desperate attempt to ward off that reckoning.
That’s National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood, writing at the Chronicle of Higher Education. He doesn’t answer the question of what is to become of all that unsecured–and possibly unsecurable–debt. But he’s on to something when he suggests that we need to look harder at root causes and re-think the entire rationale for higher ed as we know it.