Two weeks ago NYU professor Andrew Ross questioned the ethics of student loans to The Daily Beast. Since then, Ross has received backlash for his op-ed from the “creditors” he blames— and quiet thank yous from alumni who identify.
Until now, student loans haven’t been about “ethics.” We focus on the practicalities of debt— how to reduce, postpone it. But we don’t stop to ask why it’s here in the first place.
The ubiquitousness of student loans reduces their menace. From the article: “Taking out hefty student loans has become a normalized feature of college life.” The government’s promise to provide aid to “any student who qualifies” is accurate, if only technically: “aid” now covers both grants and loans, the latter a much more common gift than the former. FAFSA emails “awarding” loan money are tricky gifts. The first reaction is obliged happiness— “I can pay for college!”— followed by “How do I pay for college?” (Don’t fret; this question doesn’t have to be answered for at least a year. Phew!)
An easy retort to Mr. Ross? Debts are a part of life. Benjamin Franklin said it most famously: “Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Ross would acknowledge this. But he would also question how ethical it is to expect students who haven’t truly entered the real world (living in the East Village in an apartment your parents pay for does not count) to understand debt.
Sophomore Catalina Escalona, a member of the Global Studies Program and a recipient of NYU’s Martin Luther King scholarship, acknowledged the burden her parents have taken on to pay for her education. Though NYU’s support helps, she wasn’t guaranteed a loan-free experience except for that her parents “didn’t want anything to hinder [her] pursuit of education.” They have taken on the loans that she would have amassed otherwise.
“It’s just shifted the burden to them,” Escalona said.
Though Mr. Ross’s article is recent, his involvement with the Strike Debt Initiative is not. He encourages students to join the website, and he’s more active than most people in contributing. Mr. Ross argues that students’ reticence in the discussion comes partly from unnecessary shame, and believes this is why few current students have responded to his piece. The issue is too close to our hearts: Students, often blissfully ignorant about the load that will hit them as soon as they graduate, still fear embarrassing their parents. It is this shame that Mr. Ross has personally tried to eradicate.
This past summer, he joined debtors and other sympathizers like him every Sunday in the city. The Occupy Student Debt Campaign, which he helped found, hopes to “out” student debt, still a private struggle that few want to claim.
It is clear that Mr. Ross cares deeply about his students. He’s with us protesting, sweating, and chanting (isn’t that how we picture all Occupy rallies?). He feels not anger but compassion for the student who slept through class because he’d taken on a second job to pay back loans.
In his article, Mr. Ross points to a shift in his thinking; “the burden of debt has become the lens through which I see my workplace.” That’s a powerful statement. If others teachers feel uncomfortable about our burden (which, remember, pays their salaries) they aren’t taking the same kind of action. It’s reassuring to know that someone else is on our side, that our concerns aren’t baseless. This is not a trifling “first world problem;” Student debt is a stain we will carry with us through most of our lives (and definitely through our remaining youth). And, according to Mr. Ross, it is time to place the shame— and blame— on someone else.