Christians and College Debt

I’ve found myself thinking about one particular classmate from my undergraduate years. We entered around the same time. He was able to graduate much sooner than I, though, mostly because his Sallie Mae loan covered enough of his college bill so that he could take a full load or more every semester without working many hours (if he worked at all). Unfortunately, my friend made an alarming discovery upon graduation: His bachelor’s degree, though fully accredited and indicative of a high quality education, wasn’t exactly a “Get A Job Free” card. He soon realized that a bachelor’s degree in theology was not going to help him the way he’d planned when his loan repayments came due. He was forced to get a 30 hour per week job and enroll as a new undergrad in a local public university to get a more marketable degree, merely for the hope of landing a job that would empower him to pay off the loan for his first college experience.

For many American college students, this story hits close to home. Student loan debt is no longer a minor macroeconomic footnote. Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies instead dubs it a “time bomb,” a gravely serious economic stranglehold on millions of Americans. Collins notes that student loan debt is already higher than the US’s total credit card debt and will, according to some economists, balloon even more at the turn of the decade. One report released last year estimated that 70% of graduating seniors carry debt out of college and that the average student debt was just south of $30,000.

In February The New Yorker ran a fascinating article on Corinthian Colleges, a company that until recently ran hundreds of “for-profit” colleges. Due to financial troubles, Corinthian was forced to shut down all of its Canadian schools and many of its American ones, leaving students–who had taken out significant amounts of loans to help pay for an education from a Corinthian college–with little or nothing to show for their time there. The piece documented the plight of students “protesting” the events by demanding that their loans be forgiven, since the education they were taken out for is worth little. Federal agencies and US senators have joined the fray, imploring Congress to force the forgiveness of part or all of the debts.

This story poses an important moral dilemma for Christian collegians, many of whom find themselves in exactly the kind of financial straits described above. Some Christian writers have endorsed the strategies of the students protesting Corinthian, insisting that student loan is inherently unjust debt and that schools, creditors and government have a moral obligation to wipe such debt clean. That’s precisely the argument of Tad Hopp in his recent piece “Degrees of Debt.” Hopp’s passionate argument is appealing because he’s right that the problem of crushing student loan goes beyond the individual students themselves. His demand for a “conversation” about national debt forgiveness is hard to resist, as is his insistence that federal agencies and loan companies are in perfectly fine shape to not collect a few hundred million more.

But Hopp sidesteps the relevant biblical and moral questions that Christian students tempted to refuse to pay back their student loans are really facing. Before the relationship of a college student to a lender is a systematic justice issue (and it very well may be), it IS, in fact, an issue of individual character. Biblical wisdom literature is filled with admonitions both to avoid debt if possible, and to be sure to pay back whatever is borrowed. Refusing to do so is not only a serious legal matter, it is a matter of personal character before God. The Scripture commends the one who keeps his word even when it costs him, and it assumes that Christians keep balanced accounts with others. A plain reading of Biblical wisdom and morality makes clear that refusal to repay what is borrowed is not an option for a Christian.

But–and this is crucial–that is not the same as saying that Christian college students are doomed to become servant-scholars. There are biblically faithful and intelligent ways to deal with crushing student debt. Hopp is correct that the system is broken, but he needs to take this argument further and realize that the system’s biggest fault is the gap between student expectation and reality. Many students are willing to go into serious debt to enter college because they believe a bachelor’s degree is as good as a career. That was never really true, but it’s certainly a fiction in today’s economy. Hopp is right that we need a national conversation, but not a conversation about debt protests; rather, we need a national conversation about university alternatives like community college, technical schools, apprenticeships, and much more.  None of this suggests that four year degrees are bad or wasteful, but it does suggest that their monopoly on the imaginations of students and the aspirations of parents and teachers is a problem.

What about Christians who currently have student loan debt? As we’ve seen, Scripture assumes that Christians are people who pay what they owe to whom they owe it. That doesn’t mean that Christian students shouldn’t reach out for help, whether in the form of deferments or grants. Depending on the severity of the debt and the life situation of the student, putting a hold on further education might be necessary. That’s OK. Taking a semester off to get control of personal finances is not an admission of defeat or a forfeit of the future. Churches and Christian communities can help with this by dismantling the many stigmas around not being enrolled in university. Knowledge and wisdom are not always the same.

Christian universities should lead the way in being honest with prospective students about the costs of tuition, living, and other expenses. Not too long ago I was looking around on the website of Biola University, a Christina liberal arts school in Southern California. A good-sized section of their “Prospective Students” page was dedicated to calculating the cost of attending a private school in Orange County, including a friendly reminder that life there is considerably more expensive than most of the nation. I was impressed with the effort Biola put forth to be transparent with students, even if it meant some students turning away. Where students get in trouble is when recruiters obscure the realities of debt by encouraging incoming freshmen to “just take out a loan.” Christian schools should acknowledge that loan agencies are an option but never encourage students to go into serious debt without thinking soberly about the implications.

A final word to parents and students together: Don’t be afraid, or embarrassed, if you choose university to select a local school and live at home for a while. In many cases the costs of tuition are only a fraction of the cost of living in a college campus. Ignoring the meaningless propaganda about “the college experience,” parents and students can experience a tremendous amount of financial freedom by picking local schools, especially ones that offer in-state tuition benefits. Some Christians unwisely automatically dismiss this as “delayed adulthood,” but I can assure that what happens in most university dorms bears not even a passing resemblance to adulthood. If living in a spare room or basement can empower a student to throw herself into studies and remain financially afloat at the same time, embrace wisdom rather than the stereotype.

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