Student Debt: Who Wins the Blame Game?

Last year over 5,000 MSU undergraduate students required financial aid, according to MSU’s Office of Planning and Analysis. Less than 250 had their needs met without having to take out loans, while 66% of students received some financial aid. This means  most people who needed aid took out loans. According to Katherine Foster of MSU’s Financial Aid office, unless a student has a full ride scholarship or parents to pay the bill, they will most likely acquire some debt before graduation. On a national level, according to USA Today, the total student debt is $1.1 billion. Knowing this, I could explain the concerns student debt bring, but the truth is most students are living it.

One argument is that young adults shouldn’t be in school if they can’t afford it. This point holds little merit, however, when we realize that society has been informing us, in the words of President Barack Obama, “The incomes of people with at least a college degree are more than twice what the incomes are of Americans who don’t have a high school diploma.” University, then, is about getting a job, but it is also a social norm, a right of passage. As humans, students have to take responsibility for their actions, but saying student debt is their fault is blaming someone for educating  themselves after telling them their whole lives they must do so.

Others argue the federal government and the private lenders are at fault for the debt, an argument that holds some weight; because the government and private lenders are profiting from student debt. But as Foster explained it, the federal government does try to decrease student debt. “The majority of what we do, we are bound to [do] by federal law,” she said, in regards to how much financial aid a student can receive. She went on to explain regulations are put in place to limit how much students spend on college. This is an attempt to allow students the freedom to make their own financial decisions while not making their debt impossible to pay off.

Instead of pointing fingers at students or lenders, let’s look at what is demanding so much money: the universities. MSU states it “educates students, creates knowledge and art, and serves communities, by integrating learning, discovery, and engagement.” However, it can seem like educational goals are secondary to goals of enrollment and income in higher education.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. More enrollment means more students able to learn and grow through the many opportunities MSU provides. As Terry Leist, MSU’s Vice President of Administration and Finance, explained, almost 70 percent of MSU’s income revenue comes from enrollment fees. This pays for instruction and other operating fees, but does not include self-sustained programs such as Residence Life or Parking Services. So, increased enrollment means increased financial resources. Of course this money is needed to accommodate for new students, hire staff and construct facilities. One might think it exciting; a growing University can further share the experience of higher education.

[pullquote align=”right”]The result would be well-educated graduates with economic freedom to start businesses, buy houses and pursue work that is productive and interesting to them.[/pullquote]

The problem is in doing this we are sharing the burden of student debt. Enrollment continues to climb at MSU and nationally, a statistic that receives much praise. What future are we giving these students, though? Of course they will experience and learn new things, but at a cost so high they may not be able to pay it off for over twenty years,

At the core of the issue lies the capital-driven education system that seems to push universities farther away from bettering students’ lives. Instead of increasing tuition and enrollment, universities still dedicated to education should be downsizing. If enrollment continues to climb much of our tuition will fund necessary expansions, requiring even higher tuition costs for the students the expansions attract.

It sounds counterintuitive, but if universities’ income were used to ensure current students a quality education and to award more non-loan financial aid, graduating students would be able to enter the job market without debt. The result would be well-educated graduates with economic freedom to start businesses, buy houses and pursue work that is productive and interesting to them. It would allow graduates to benefit from university, instead of what we have now: graduates incapacitated by their debt.