Beggared by our own Universities

Originally published in Times Higher Education on April 2, 2009.

The Current Crisis proves everything leftists have ever said about the follies and cruelties of utopian capitalism. Truly enough, anyway, to afford a moment at Wall Street’s expense, and a laugh at all those arrogant university economists, their phony expertise disgraced by incorrigible facts. Hail Bernard Madoff, representative man! Since the 1990s, the honest scholar has felt utterly disdained, left out, by the nation’s over-monetized institutions. Now the Confidence Man has burst out of ghettos of economic history to wallow in filthy lucre.

I do not own, and have not wanted, the things for which all those risky bets were ventured—a car, a house, a second house, a mobile phone, a television. I have no private health insurance, neither for myself nor for my wife and daughter, because I have not held a regular, full-time job for twenty months.

What diffident and principled years these have been, neither gaining in wealth nor laying up against the future, having little to do with money, nor money with me. What had I to lose to the likes of Madoff? From idealism, moreover, I have reaped much that cannot be bargained away. Our Current Crisis, in respect of its psychological deprivations, not only has not touched me; it has made me rich with examples of why the nonconformist left, at least, is still so appealing.

Then I remember my student loans. To judge from the Obama administration’s higher education budget, I am not alone in trying to forget them. Of the radical new ideas suggested by the budget and pending in the U.S. Congress, the administration’s plan to eliminate the guaranteed student loan program—by which the government has subsidized predatory banks and lenders of dubious ethics—has stirred much gratitude in that sector of higher education which still cares for learning. The government itself will originate the contract and terms of the loans, funneling the dollars thus saved into Pell Grants for low-income students. If this measure will not solve the riddle of making college affordable, it may throw some of the loan-sharks out of work.

Those of us holding loans we cannot possibly repay, though, are out of luck. Alan Michael Collinge’s The Student Loan Scam: The Most Oppressive Debt in U.S. History—and How We Can Fight Back demonstrates, inarguably, how we have been beggared by our own universities. Five million degree-holders have defaulted, no thanks to Congress, which went out of its way to strip our loans of consumer protections, while making student loans, in particular, immune from discharge in bankruptcy court.

Among outrage and neglect, where does the impoverished scholar stand? Don’t we, too, deserve a bailout? Of course we do. And the effect of the Department of Education forgiving student debt would be enormous, of lasting social value, creativity unleashed. The more troubling question is how those of us who regard money, then, now, and forever, as the enabler of vulgar passions, may learn to live in societies utterly consumed by it. One thing is for sure: A squabbling politics of bribes and bonuses will yield us no profit.