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/ November 10, 2011
Village Voice Examines NYU Student Debt In Latest Cover Story

I’m one of the lucky ones. When I graduate from NYU in January, I will have amassed $20,322.33 in student loan debt, not including interest on those loans, or a Perkins loan that my parents took out when I was a freshman. (The rest of my education was paid for by generous grandparents and a scholarship from Gallatin, which covered half of my tuition every year.) This is consistent with the national average, so honestly, I feel fortunate. Yes, I feel “fortunate” to have “only” $20K in debt.

The Project on Student Debt recently placed NYU on its list of the “Worst Private Schools for Student Debt.” Now, writer Nick Pinto has penned a Village Voice cover story about NYU students and their debt. While it doesn’t really say anything that hasn’t already been hashed over in other articles, it does provide an exhaustive overview of the student debt situation at our wonderful school, covering everything from the university’s rapid expansionist goals, to Take Back NYU!, to questionable financial aid policy and loan schemes. The article is worth a read, but for those of you with midterms and term papers, we’ve put together some choice excerpts and comments after the jump.

Much of the article focuses on Lyndsey, an NYU alumna who took out over $300,000 in loans to graduate from NYU and subsequently found herself forced to make the choice between working in the industry she actually studied for and making her loan payments ($1,232 a month!). The rest of the article details why NYU is so bad at student debt, which essentially boils down to the fact that NYU is using student tuition to finance its massive expansion plans and vision of a Global University in an effort to become a New Ivy:

“But at the same time, NYU’s status as an iconic and prolific generator of student debt is an awkward fit with the populist outrage of national education funding activists and Occupy Wall Street protesters. Prospective NYU students have less-expensive options, and NYU isn’t exactly positioning itself as an affordable institution for the masses. In fact, its tuition is so high and its financial aid so low precisely because the university is on a multi-decade spending spree, attempting to launch itself into the highest tiers of elite universities with a state-of-the-art campus and top-notch faculty.

That sort of aspirational spending—the idea that, as former NYU president L. Jay Oliva once said, “There’s no way to get excellence, other than buying your way into it”—is, of course, only the institutional mirror of the aspirational spending NYU’s students are doing when they pay their tuition bills. For many, the belief that a diploma from a prestigious school like NYU can catapult a student into a higher socioeconomic register makes NYU’s staggering tuition seem worth it.

There is a significant difference between these double strands of big dreams and lavish spending, though: NYU is financing its dreams with student tuition. The students are financing theirs with enormous loans that can weigh on them and limit their options for decades to come.”

All that said, it’s worth noting that Pinto only speaks to students whose debt is well outside the normal range (over $100,000), and whose career prospects have dwindled because of their loan burden. It’s unlikely that anyone could argue Lyndsey made a wise choice to attend NYU. The situation is a bit more murky for students like me, who still have a lot of debt, but have so far managed to scrape by without too much difficulty. I’ll be paying off my loans for a while, but my monthly payments are a more manageable $300.

The underlying point of Pinto’s article seems to be that a lot of students decide to go to NYU even when it’s not the best decision financially for them, which I could have told you without writing a 5000 word article about it. Like most other writers who tackle debt, Pinto chooses to focus on students and their dubious decisions, rather than the societal factors that might have pushed them to make those decisions in the first place. Such factors include, but are not limited to:

  1. The American belief that you can accomplish anything as long as you work hard enough, which leads many students to take on crushing debt in the hopes that they will get their dream job right after college and not have any problem making their loan payments.
  2. Our generation’s childhood, where self-esteem and helicopter parenting were king, which led a lot of students to unrealistically believe they actually would get their dream job right out of college.
  3. The idea that college is for everyone, and that anything worth doing requires a college degree. To be clear here: not saying that only certain people deserve the right to an education. But does everyone really need to go to college to be successful? And why do we continue to attach a person’s career worth to an educational system which is underfunded and bureaucratic and outdated?

Pinto is sparse on solutions, maybe because there don’t seem to be a whole lot of them out there at the moment. Occupy Wall Street is pushing for student loan debt forgiveness, but don’t get your hopes up about that. Student debt is a huge cash cow for banks, to the point that student loans are the only kind of debt that can’t be forgiven even if you file for personal bankruptcy. (Though really, who wants to be at the point where you have to file for bankruptcy to figure out your debt situation?) The article does mention loan refinancing, which is currently not allowed but would significantly cut down on loan interest if permitted.

Maybe the real question here, the one we’re not addressing, is whether Americans still believe that education is a public good meant for everyone, or if you only deserve a university education when your family is rich. More and more people nowadays subscribe to the latter belief, or at least that seems like the case when you read the comments on any article about student debt. They are almost always unsympathetic rants about how we “had a choice to go somewhere more affordable.”

Of course, there’s state school, but public education budgets are being slashed across the country — the University of Hawaii, my home state school, took a $59 million budget cut last year. Not all state schools are created equal, either. The caliber of education I would have received at UH is not on par with, say, Penn State. So what kind of choice is it, really, when students are presented with the option (as I was) to either go to a mediocre state school with mediocre programs for less money, or a great program in a great city that’s massively expensive? I still feel, despite my loan debt, that it was worth it to go to NYU. But I’m not convinced that makes debt for the sake of education “right.” The fact that so many other people accept this notion without question should be a great cause for concern.

[Full disclosure: I am friends with Ryan Hamelin, who was interviewed in the Village Voice article.] 

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