Jennifer Silva wrote an excellent essay for the Sunday Times about the alienation and isolation of working-class young people “who are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks.” Many of these young people are in dead-end jobs and a lot of them have college-loan debts for educational experiences that did not open the door to a middle-class income.
As Silva pointed out, the economic hardships these people have suffered is well documented. What society as a whole fails to realize, however, are the so-called “hidden injuries” these young people have endured. “Increasingly disconnected from institutions of work, family and community, they grow up learning that counting on others will only hurt them in the end,” Silva wrote. Many feel betrayed by the institutions in their lives--“colleges, the health care system, employers or government.”
One of Silva’s observations struck me as particularly poignant--the fact that many young people who have failed to achieve economic self-sufficiency blame themselves. “[T]hese young men and women don’t want your pity--and they don’t expect a handout,” Silva wrote. “They are quick to blame themselves for the milestones they have not yet (and may never) achieve.”
This tendency for young people to blame themselves for their economic misfortunes seems particularly prominent among young people who borrowed money to attend college and were then unable to pay off their loans. “It was my fault,” many of them say, “that I borrowed too much money, chose the wrong major, or dropped out of college without finishing.”
This tendency toward self blame was illustrated in a New York Times story about Cortney Munna, a woman who took out nearly $100,000 in loans to obtain an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies at New York University. At the time the article was published, Cortney had been out of college nearly five years and was making $22 an hour.
As the New York Times author put it, Cortney longed for a do-over of the previous decade of her life. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life slaving away to pay for an education I got for four years and would happily give back,” she said. “It feels wrong to me.”
Later, Cortney apparently regretted that statement--taking full responsibility for her predicament. In an essay published in the Times, this is what Cortney said:
First and foremost, I openly acknowledge my responsibility for my current situation, as well as the naïveté in my estimation of the return on investment of a “high quality” education and a liberal arts degree. My only explanation is that once I was in school, I didn’t think much about tuition beyond filling out the paperwork, and I did what I always had done: focused on my education.
I accept that this was negligent on my part, but unfortunately, I was too young to know better. I also willingly admit that I am responsible for repaying the money I borrowed. I have been doing this, to the best of my ability, over the course of the last five years and have every intention of continuing to do so.
The one part of this process that I regret is being quoted as saying I would happily give back my degree. That’s an emotionally charged statement that only comes out during moments of my most intense frustration.
Personally, I am sorry Cortney recanted her original statement about happily giving back her degree. That statement--in my opinion--accurately implied that part of the blame for her predicament should be attributed to other parties--including Citibank, who loaned her $40,000 after she was already heavily indebted. As the Times writer observed, “[W]hat was Citi thinking, handing over $40,000 to an undergraduate who had already amassed debt well into the five figures?”
Unfortunately, I think many former college students who are hopelessly indebted by their student loans are like Cortney--they primarily blame themselves. And that attitude has allowed the status quo to continue to the benefit of the wrong parties, including the banks, the universities, and overpaid university executives.
I was heartened for awhile by the Occupy Wall Street movement, hoping that this protest movement might take fire and ignite change. But the Occupy protesters were put down in short order by brutal police tactics. At UC Davis, for example, campus police officers assaulted the Occupy protesters with pepper spray.
Returning to the recent essay by Jennifer Silva, this is the point I wish to make. Silva is right that many young people who were badly treated by the new economy and by higher education are blaming themselves for their predicament. In my opinion, these people are victims who should be assigning a majority of the blame to other parties.
It is true that the federal student loan program has helped millions of young people obtain a college education. But it has also ruined the lives millions more.
Currently, Americans are burdened by more than a trillion dollars in student-loan indebtedness. Congress refuses to amend the bankruptcy laws to provide relief for the people who deserve relief. It refuses to rein in the for-profit universities, which have the highest student-loan default rates. Universities--both public and private--have feasted off the student loan program, and their executives are making obscene amounts of money. Private banks have their noses at the trough, recklessly loaning money to students at high interest rates.
In short--a lot of parties are at fault for our current predicament. Personally, I hope overstressed student-loan debtors stop blaming themselves and get angry at the people who created this mess.
Ron Lieber. (2010, May 28). Placing the Blame as Students Are Buried in Debt. New York Times. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/29/your-money/student-loans/29money.html?pagewanted=all
Cortney Munna. (2010, June 1). More on Cortney Munna’s Student Loan Tale. New York Times. Accessible at: http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/01/more-on-cortney-munnas-student-loan-saga/
Jennifer Silva. Young and Isolated. New York Times, Sunday Review Section, p. 7.