## Monday, October 6, 2014

### If you don't have student loans, there's a high probability you're missing something

An opinion piece floated across my radar this morning; penned by one Jessica Slizewski, originally at XOJane and picked up at Time.com, it announces to the reader that I Don’t Have Student Loans and I Don’t Feel Bad for People Who Do. OK, so I'm being trolled. I don't care, I feel the need to retort.

Before I begin, I do feel compelled to state that, like Ms Slizewski, I strongly feel that the rent tuition is too damn high, and that student-loan debt overhang is having a nasty macroeconomic effect on the U.S. I also think that the structure of student-loan finance puts some perverse incentives on institutions of higher education; but that's neither here nor there.

We let Ms Slizewski make her case:
My father is not a Wall Street banker. I’m not a member of the so-called “1 percent.” My mother isn’t an heiress and I’m not some genius who earned a full scholarship to the institution of my choice.

Yet somehow, by what most of my friends think was the wave of some fairy godmother’s wand, I graduated college without student loans.
So far so good -- Slizewski has demonstrated by example that it is possible to graduate from college without student-loan debt. (Now, as she alludes to, it's important to specify for whom it is possible -- no one disputes that it's possible for the child of a couple of hedge-fundies to attend college without borrowing; and as we'll see, her folks aren't entirely without means, but let's proffer that she's addressing the essay to people situated similarly to herself. White Chicagoland girls are, after all, the measure of mankind.)

Unfortunately, what we get next is much less hard to spin into sense:
Stats from the Department of Education show outstanding student loans total more than $1 trillion. A report from The Institute for College Access in late 2013 revealed the average new graduate starts his or her life with$29,400 in student loan debt. College as we know it is clearly unaffordable. So my question is: Why do people keep embarking on the “traditional college experience” when they know it’s going to put them tens — sometimes hundreds — of thousands of dollars in debt?
This paragraph displays two glaring errors of logic; for the moment, I'll just note them and  move along, and we'll come back to them later. The first is this claim that an undergraduate degree which includes $30K in debt at graduation is "clearly" unaffordable. Clear to whom? Even assuming interest rates in excess of current home mortgage rates, you're talking three, maybe four hundred dollars a month for ten years, with fairly rigid procedures in place for payment plans in the event of income disruption. Why would that be "unaffordable"? Oh, yes. Because recent graduates aren't getting jobs out of college. Because the economy is still all fucked up and bullshit, and to get your foot in the door you need five years experience working on a platform that has only existed for two. Which is a totally separate problem, and one which persists even among those without any student loan debt, but which leads me to the second glaring error: stating the cost of college without the other side of the balance sheet. Continuing: And while some people say these 18-year-old kids don’t know what they’re getting themselves into, let’s not pretend we don’t know better. I distinctly remember asking my friend how he would pay off the roughly$70,000 debt he would incur to obtain a major in Ancient Greek and Latin at a liberal arts college in the Midwest. His answer? A simple shrug and flippant “It’s not something I have to worry about right now — hopefully they’ll be forgiven by the government.” Now that he’s still waiting tables four years after graduation, I’d say it’s well past time to start worrying.

I can’t pretend I completely understand how these people feel after the fun is over and the repayments begin, but I can say that I really don’t feel bad for them.

Why not? Because I worked hard to avoid taking out loans. My wonderful parents and grandmother helped me pay for my education, but in the end, it was a few decisions I made that saved me the burden of borrowing money I would never have been able to pay back. Unlike the majority of my friends who went to schools less than an hour from their parents’ homes and chose to live on campus rather than commute, my college roommates were named Mom and Dad. I chose state schools that were half, sometimes one-quarter, of the cost of the schools my friends were attending and worked a part-time on-campus scholarship job in addition to full-time hours at my retail job. I spent the four years of my life designed for partying essentially reliving my high school years. And yes, it was awful.
Do you see what she did there? Classics Major Friend's answer is, in fact, completely reasonable: no one knows what kind of job they'll be doing upon graduation, except for people who use college as job training -- finance, accounting, engineering, architecture. And even the ones who major in job training frequently find after a few years that the job doesn't agree with them any more, and that the money they fronted saving their employer the cost of training them either becomes (a) a sunk cost around their neck as they embark on retooling themself again, at their own expense, or (b) an instance of the sunken cost fallacy as they continue to work a job they hate until they've paid off their indenture.

There are any number of ways to make a living off a classics degree, some of which even use the classics directly! And also, of course, many ways to not make a living, especially since have I mentioned the fucked up and bullshit economy yet? But instead, Slizewski points to all the "fun" and "partying" her co-matriculants were having as the only reward for which that loan money is paying.

The balance sheet still looks lopsided.

But wait, it gets worse:
Imagine the stereotypical American college experience. You pick some private university in the middle of a cornfield with a tuition price of about $36,000 a year, plus room and board, party it up every night since you’ve finally escaped the teenage hellhole known as your family’s home, and stumble into your Symbolism in Harry Potter seminar at 11 a.m. still half-drunk and probably reeking of Icehouse. You join a sorority, get vomit in your hair more times than you’re willing to admit publicly, and spend half the day on whatever flavor-of-the-week social media site the guy you currently like is active on. Sounds fun — until you realize all this will probably leave you at least$30,000 in the hole upon receiving that diploma. And guess what? Unless you absolutely needed some highly specialized major that was only offered at a few schools, chances are you probably could have gotten your education/accounting/psychology degree at a much more affordable university closer to home. You might have even been able to — gasp — live with your parents.
Did you know that it is impossible to both get your party on a couple times a week and have a genuine academic experience? I surely didn't until Ms Slizewski opened my eyes.

So let's break down where this analysis... breaks down. The tell is in the "specialized major" sentence. What this is betraying is the mistaken notion that one's education happens by professors droning esoteric nonsense in your general direction. That's not how it works. Education happens when students take a very bare-bones framework, embodied in the syllabus and readings and writing/discussion prompts, decide that there are difficult and thorny questions at issue, and become a discourse community.

Much more education happens in the 3 AM bull session in the dorm than happens in the 3 PM lecture.

Now, it is true that, except for a very few elite technical universities, much of the learning experience is largely interchangeable. If you are deciding between Directional In-State University and Directional Out-Of-State University, choose the one which is cheaper (i.e. the in-state school) unless you have a really good reason not to. (Also, the kids at Directional In-State U party plenty hard.) On the other hand, if you have the chops to go to MIT or Cal Tech, go -- the scholarly communities at those institutions have never been replicated, and I am not referring only to the faculty or the graduate students which they attract.

But this leaves out one other, critical piece of the college game: the role of economic signaling. If you're weighing the added-value of Top-Ten-Public U or Top-25-Private U over Directional State U, the question you must ask yourself is, am I able and willing to capitalize on the brand recognition and network this prestigious institution comes with? If so, then the tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt you (might) need to spend are a a capital investment. Pun intended. If not, then you've learned something about yourself and left that spot for someone who's better suited to it.

I don't mean this merely in a mercenary way; "capitalizing" on that privilege need not take the form of actual capital (though someone is eventually going to have to pay off those loans). But whatever you end up deciding to do, it's far, far easier to do it with a degree from the University of Chicago than with the isomorphic degree from UIC -- and I know the folks who teach at UIC, and they're damn good. But they don't have the brand recognition.

And if you know of a tiny specialization where Directional State has a great brand, then my remarks above apply to them too -- but knowing that capitalizing on that brand requires working within the confines of that specialization.

The last word: when you get out of college, your prospective employers will not care about the amount of vomit you've had in your hair. (If they do, they aren't worth working for anyway.) They will, however, care that you have the ability to scrub your social media presence and promote your own brand, because you're going to be responsible for maintaining theirs. Both brands, by the way, are carefully crafted lies. Utter bullshit. We all know this, it's how the world works. I promise you, it won't be too long before you're holding a co-worker's hair back as she vomits at an office party, and you'll be wondering how this is different from college. I'll tell you: there are way fewer 3 AM bull sessions in the adult world, and we're all intellectually poorer for it.