The Ball & Chain Industry - Empire Week

By Zachary Schepis

Like lambs to the slaughter. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I want you to stop for a second and consider all of the young people that you know. Really, all of them – all of the late teenagers taking their first steps towards adulthood, all of the twenty-somethings, chock-full of gusto and promise and determination. Consider the older guys and gals holding on to youth with all of their might. How many of those individuals attended a college, obtained a degree in a desired field? Most likely the majority pursued at least a B.A. of some variety in the education system.

Now how many of those very same people took out massive student loans to finance their academic studies?

There’s a beast slouching towards Bethlehem, and it sure as shit isn’t a poetic metaphor. The behemoth is a whopping $1 trillion in federal student debt. It’s a snake eating our nation alive with its tail curled tight around the economy’s neck.

And it’s getting tighter and tighter.

There are currently more than 40 million Americans who have some form of student debt. This figure is greater than the entire population of Canada, Poland, North Korea, and more than 200 other countries. It is also quadruple the population of Sweden.

If you’re as baffled at this mess as I am, you’re probably wondering how the hell we could have possibly dug ourselves into such a deep hole. Somewhere along the way we must have decided as a collective that this was a good idea. We’ll create a precedent for our kids that demands them to attend a college or university, to academically distinguish themselves so that they may rise to the top of the rat race. Surely everyone knows that in order to be successful, one has to obtain the upper hand.

It is precisely this illusory “advantage,” however, that is plunging our young individuals into corporate serfdom. The need for excessive (and often unnecessary) qualifications, and a cutting edge to distinguish oneself on paper have diminished crucial freedoms of choice. The way has already been mapped for us: You can’t get the job of your dreams unless you enter a field of study related to that interest. Even then you’ll be competing with thousands of other candidates who very well may score better than you, Oor look better on paper.

Putting the matter under an unwilling magnifying glass, we find that the plot doesn’t thicken – it downright spoils. The looming possibility of defaulting on taxpayer-backed loans presents an acute risk to the economy, especially in a period of recovery. Congress doesn’t forget easily, and being forced to deal with prior default rates has embittered them towards allowing borrowers to obtain bankruptcy relief for loans – making it virtually impossible to obtain. Sallie Mae officials recently leaked that their second most important goal is to maintain the inability to eschew education debt in bankruptcy.

Lock your doors. There are even loan “bounty hunters” hired by the federal government to aggressively collect proper due from debtors.

You might think that with such unrelenting fiscal determination that the Federal Government is strapped for cash. It turns out exactly the opposite is true. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Federal Government made approximately $50 billion on student loans in 2013. This gargantuan figure amounts to $5 billion more than the most profitable company in the country, ExxonMobile. In fact, if the Federal Government were a private company, it would be the most profitable company in the country.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe high-schoolers out there approaching their final year should give a second thought to the whole college fandango lying in wait. I’m all for education, but at what cost? Self-education is always a valid route to take, and can prove to be more beneficial in terms of learning self-sufficiency, willpower, and organization. You don’t need to submit yourself to an institution that will reap your wallet for everything it is worth, and then some. You don’t need to enslave yourself into serfdom and serve as cattle for multinational corporations and conglomerates.

If you need more convincing, don’t worry. Recently Congress gave the green light to double the rates of undergraduate federal student loans from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. A new deal set this past summer gives student loans variable interest rates whose only option is to go up. The interest rates will continue to climb as the economy bolsters itself, and could surpass 6.8 percent by 2015.

Let’s see, we’re still missing something. Oh, that’s right: people are being disqualified for first-home mortgages due to debt, and automotive sales are losing money over once-prospective-buyers now turned broke-millenials. Should you choose to default on your student loans, professional licenses can be suspended (including your driver’s license if you’re from Montana), personal credit can plummet, you can become unemployable, and private student loans can even be tacked onto a deceased debtor’s family. Since 1999, student debt has increased more than 500 percent.

To some, the increase in student loan debt bares an uncanny resemblance to the housing bubble that mushroomed at the end of the last decade. But unlike a mortgage, the government can never revoke the education you were provided. This does not mean, however, that its value is incapable of decreasing. In 2011, economist and CEO of Higher Education Strategies told BTR, “The trouble is a college degree is still, like a home, a positional good. The value of my degree depends on other people not having one. Like a house, it’s about location, location, location. Not everyone can have a house in Georgetown.”

Who am I kidding, if I had to do it all over again I probably would still choose to attend college, because how does one expect to get a decent job without qualifications better than the next guy or gal competing? But at the same time, there is a throbbing sliver of me that wishes things could have gone a little differently. It blooms in my mind as a bitter reminder every time I open the bill for my next loan payment.

Believe it or not, we don’t have to take the route that society demands of us. Perhaps at some point, I’ll abandon everything and live on the beach. Or for the fresh high-school graduate, instead of rushing into a field of uncertainty and changing majors three or four times, why not take some time to reflect? Or taking the chance and being an entrepreneur… immersing oneself directly in the field, getting your hands dirty with the rich grit of experience. Ultimately, what other way is there to learn?

After all, as Bob Dylan once sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”