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Was that Dartmouth Degree Really Worth It?

The Student Loan Crisis: a Personal Memoir

by CHRISTOPHER C. SCHONS

I’m now going to write about something that I never discuss. It’s something that makes my chest heavy, and my face flush. It’s an issue that in my early 20’s had me feeling crestfallen, and that still bothers me today. It also happens to be a matter that among the general US population has reached crisis proportions. It’s an epidemic that I’m ashamed to be a part of, but here is the truth: I owe student loans. And I am 48 years old.

It started insidiously. Throughout my youth in Minnesota, my family and teachers urged me to develop my cognitive abilities, to focus on school, to push myself intellectually. And, fortunately, I was naturally curious and had some innate ability. I was identified as “gifted” and thus eligible to take special courses in my public school system, both during the academic year and during summers. I took advantage of these whenever I could.

By the time I got to high school, I was used to doing well in school. My best friend (whose family had a lot more experience with such matters) told me that the next step I should strive for was to attend a fancy East Coast college, but that to do so I had to really buckle down and work hard to keep my grades as high as possible. Mission accomplished: Throughout high school, I took the hardest courses available, and ended up with one “A+,” dozens of “A’s” and three “A-’s.” I was a National Merit Scholar.

I enrolled at Dartmouth College, a member of the vaunted Ivy League. But after a year or so I noticed something: I didn’t like the place very much. Fraternities (about which I’d been totally clueless) were rampant, and the attendant ritualized alcoholism to me was abhorrent. At newly coeducational Dartmouth, misogyny was explicit and widespread, and homophobia and racism were in the air as well. Intellectualism was ridiculed by important swaths of the student body.

What to do? I applied to transfer to two different East Coast colleges, but was not accepted at either. I can see why: I was not a minority, I was not a competitive athlete, I did not have rich parents who were potential donors, and I would continue to need financial aid. Maybe most importantly, I had some “B+’s” on my transcript.

At the same time, I applied for a coveted spot in Dartmouth’s two-term study abroad program for English majors, carried out in London. To that I was accepted, and I was relieved that I would get a break from a campus that I never found hospitable to begin with, and which had succumbed to apartheid-related tumult fueled by the reactionary and noxious William F. Buckley-inspired student newspaper “The Dartmouth Review.” It really felt like half my classmates were off getting drunk and denigrating women at the fraternities, while another group were hellbent on making Dartmouth an all-white campus reminiscent of the 1950’s. The alcoholic sleaze and ideological acrimony were palpable. And I was taking out student loans for the privilege of being at the center of all this!

Why was I taking out loans? Despite my being a bright student, my young parents had saved literally no money for me to attend college. They were struggling to live a suburban lifestyle, while in fact working toward their own college degrees. And then they divorced. So, for me to attend, Dartmouth had to pony up a lot of financial aid money that mostly consisted of grants, but also of loans. That’s how it started.

And I’m sure that’s how it starts for a lot of American youngsters. You’ve worked hard in high school, you see more affluent peers heading off to prestigious schools without blinking at the price tag, and you don’t want a little thing like a loan to hold you back. As a teenager, financial matters don’t feel tangible. In any case, your imagined future self surely will be wealthy and successful.  Academically, I had taken on and succeeded at virtually every challenge in my path. I wasn’t about to balk and change course in what seemed like the logical next step.

This is one of the most heinous and predatory aspects of America’s trillion-dollar student loan racket: it is foisted on kids. One’s brain is not fully developed until age 25, and judgements made before then are prone to flaws. Rental car companies know this; they won’t do business with anyone under that age. Why don’t universities? You can’t drink until you’re 21, yet you can go thousands upon thousands dollars in debt just trying to educate yourself. It’s patently wrong.

So, off I went to London, one of the most expensive cities in the world, to study a subject – English literature – not known especially for future remuneration. My parents and I paid Dartmouth tuition, even though the public English university I attended charged its students, I’m sure, far, far less. Another ripoff. Yet, I took out more loans since I was not able to do work-study, and to meet living expenses even tapped the $1,000 certificate of deposit that my grandparents (family farmers) had given me as a high school graduation gift.

Back from London and at home in Minneapolis for the summer, I decided not to head back to Dartmouth for senior year. Instead, I would go to the University of Minnesota and graduate from there. That idea did not sit well with my parents, after all the time and resources expended to that point on my “Dartmouth experience.” My argument was that I didn’t want to borrow more money to spend time at a place where I wasn’t comfortable. Their argument was that there was just one year left. So, I went back, took out more student loans, and graduated from Dartmouth College. It was over.

Except that - financially – it wasn’t over. Senior Week we student debtors (approximately 40% of the student body, a kind of lower caste) were harangued by an impetuous little man sent by the College to inform us about the utter necessity of never falling behind on a single payment, and that these would commence in six months.

Here is another great flaw and injustice in the student loan system: In retrospect, I would not have matriculated at Dartmouth. Yet I had this debt from having done precisely that. If you take out an auto loan, the car depreciates in value but at least you can sell it to someone else. If you no longer like your house, you can sell it to a new owner and pay the mortgage off. My degree I could not sell to anyone else; there was nothing I could do with the debt that seemed so daunting to me at age 22, by which time I had never earned more than ten dollars an hour at any job. Nobody could purchase my experience reading Conrad’s “Nostromo” or my Spanish skills on a secondary market. My time watching drunk Dartmouth undergrads urinate off the fire escape at 3AM or vomit into waste baskets was not fungible.

I was stuck, and that infuriated me. “Start saving and investing early,” ran the conventional wisdom in my middle class milieu. Smart advice. Yet I was handcuffed and forced to do just the opposite: Service debt. This is a very perverse outcome of the American educational system. It dims one’s future just as that future is supposed to be burning brightest. It introduces you to well-defined limitation, just as you’re supposed to feel a great expansion in your personal possibilities. And this awful system had engulfed me, who had been unsuspecting most of the time, who growing up in Minnesota had been used to trusting institutions and systems to look after my interests.

It would be interesting if colleges like Dartmouth kept track of the relationship between the acquisition of student debt and future academic and professional attainment. For years I’ve suspected that the kids one reads about in the alumni magazine who go to Stanford Law School, or Harvard Business School, have parents helping them out. If debt is involved in financing the next stage of the Ivy League dream, it’s never mentioned, although for the sake of reality it should be. But there must be a measurable bifurcation: At graduation, the commencement speaker might fairly say, “For those of you with no debt, for those whose families paid every dime of your undergraduate expenses, Dream big!; for those of you with substantial student debt, well, Rein in those dreams — your set of possibilities is more limited.” And, of course, parents who’ve spent their early years servicing debt instead of saving and investing are more likely to perpetuate the bifurcation within the next generation. America’s student debt crisis I’m sure has acquired intergenerational features.

I suspect that many reading this piece will be upset with me. “How can you look a gift horse in the mouth,” they might be thinking. “Dartmouth College did give you financial aid, and now you have an Ivy League degree.” That’s true. But it doesn’t mean the current system of doling out student loans is optimal educational policy, especially in an alleged meritocracy. Other rich, civilized countries (Denmark, for example) do not ask young people to start their young lives right out of the gate with educational debt. In fact, many countries charge nominal sums even for professional school attendance, a cost that in the USA is probably the greatest hurdle for many would-be doctors, attorneys, etc. Asking immature but aspiring youngsters to go into debt as the first step into an adulthood with any kind of possibility is terrible social policy.

There’s also the haphazard, byzantine attempts at social engineering that have attached to the realm of student debtors. For some professions, and within some institutions – such as the US Congress – the employer will make debt payments on behalf of the former student. But there is no comprehensive vision to this patchwork system, one that in any case amounts to little more than indentured servitude. Moreover, who decides which activities are more socially desirable? Why is working for Congress deemed more worthy of debt relief than, say, tinkering around with green automotive technologies in one’s garage? This carrot-and-stick approach to student debt and employment choices strikes me as profoundly anti-liberty and un-American.

Finally, there is an aspect of this student loan debacle that is specific to Dartmouth College. For years, a handful of the college’s trustees have funneled money from the multi-billion dollar endowment to their personal financial firms, netting for themselves millions of dollars in commissions and fees. It’s a grotesque instance of self-dealing and conflict of interest made all the more heinous because hundreds of Dartmouth students continue to take out significant amounts of student loans: The average debtor graduates owing $17,825. (That’s a lot of money to a virtual kid who has spent his/her life up until then focused almost only on school, not breadwinning.)  It’s a microcosm of the USA’s increasingly feudal-looking society: A few financial insiders look out for themselves and make out like bandits, while the rest of us get saddled with debt. My hope is that more Dartmouth alums will wise up to what is going on and demand that the trustees stop this utterly unethical practice of profiting personally from their official dealings with the college.

Finally, I guess I need to explain how one year removed from my 25th college reunion I still owe money relating to my degree. Well, over the decades I have taken advantage of every single loan deferment and forbearance available. The financial crisis has been particularly kind to me, because interest rates have been virtually zero and my debt compounds at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, the stock market has soared, making my net worth look better and better. But till now I haven’t paid a cent, on principle; I’m sickened by a system that almost forces the intellectually curious and ambitious to go into debt just in order to get a foundational education. I do plan to pay someday, though, by writing out a single check for the sum total owed. After all, I have a daughter in first grade whose college years are rapidly approaching.

Christopher C. Schons is a 1988 graduate of Dartmouth College. He lives in Arlington, Virginia. He can be reached at christopher_schons@yahoo.com.