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June 02, 2010


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This became a timebomb the day the federal government switched from grant-based aid to loans, then laid-off the loans to companies that knew they were selling to the least financially-sophisticated people able to sign a contract. This started as soon as the affirmative action backlash began -- we might have to let them into our schools, but we'll be damned if we'll prevent our financial friends from profiting on a mortgage on those kids' futures. The drive for loan privatization only made the strategy blatant -- unless your parents are upper class, you will experience no social mobility. Debt keeps one in one's place, don't it?


Sounds like me, except I have even more student loan debt, and not just from NYU. I don't think it's as much an issue with the banks loaning the money as it is that universities are allowed to charge that much. Let's face it--NYU is one of the top schools in the country. If it's the best place you're accepted, you go.
If there are any sugar daddies or sugar mommies who like 29 year-old brunettes in arts education, feel free to contact me below. ;)


I don't think it's wrong to lay a little blame at Ms. Munna's feet, especially since I disagree with SashaNaomi. (Given the choice between Carnegie Mellon and SUNY Binghamton, I chose the far cheaper one.) I conceded that she should have received better counseling, though I disagree that it's the college's responsibility to do so. (We don't force any other business--and private colleges are exactly that--to warn you about the financial burden of buying their product.)

For me, the real kicker is this: she spent $100,000 dollars on an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies -- and then got a job as a photographer. Perhaps part of the problem is that we force students to rush off to college before they know what they'd like to pursue, and they spend at least two expensive years bogged down either in unnecessary general ed classes OR working toward a major they don't actually plan to (or get to) use. Would it be so bad for students to defer their enrollment at an expensive university and to then attend a state or city college for a year, first?


I certainly agree with that and I think it's a hole in the article that he doesn't lay that out. We don't know what her options were or her plan was. And it's clear there's been some shifting of focus (though, it's also possible that a job as a photographer's assistant was the only one she could find and you go from there).

Honestly, I think you're making my larger point: colleges act like businesses, even though they're non-profit entities, supposedly working for the public good. They have a brand and a product and if the product doesn't turn out the way you expect or want, well, that's on you. I don't think education should be treated that way. If the goal of an institution is to provide an education and a foundation for a future life, that should start during the admissions process.

I agree that our society's attitude to education is going to have to change, because this isn't going to work in the long run.


The fact that private colleges get to call themselves non-profit is an entirely different can of worms. We're in agreement about the central aspect; I just don't see college-as-business as a problem, and I don't see that there's any way to reform that, because colleges can't guarantee jobs. So yes, "If the product doesn't turn out the way you expect or want, well, that's on you."

A more honest discussion about the returns on certain degrees would be helpful; a friend of mine is getting a PhD in classics -- he's fully aware of the limited number of opportunities for someone with his credentials, and has been careful not to go into debt (in fact, he's made money as a fellow) while studying. Another friend of mine supplements the money spent on a master's degree in political science by doing other jobs for the college, realizing that it may be years before he's able to do enough yeoman-type work to make the money he needs to fully repay his debts. (He also lives at home.)

And of course, what it really boils down to is that education needs to start BEFORE college. My high-school advisor was TERRIBLE, and only ever couched things in terms of "reach" schools for which money would, of course, be no object. This, in turn, requires parents to be better educated--free pamphlets and classes/workshops from the government would help with this, though there are some good websites, too. Of course, the news that students who attend poor schools and who have poor family lives are disadvantaged in this process, well . . . that's no surprise.


The reporter compared it to the mortgage crisis, with people buying more house than they could afford. That young woman bought more college than she could afford. She would have been much better off at a state university.

Unless the school has a specific program you can't get anywhere else or such an incredible reputation that the name alone on your resume will open doors I think the financial implications have to be part of the decision. They were when I went to college years ago.

I think the attitude in most of the world is, it's harder to get into college but if you can make it, we'll make sure you can afford it. In the U.S. almost any high school graduate can get in "somewhere" and as long as you can pay, you're good to go.

It's sad and I understand schools like NYU want to continue to attract the middle class. But no one did that young woman any favors - starting with her mother, her guidance counselor, the bank that lent her the money.

I don't know what she was thinking she'd do with her degree. I hate to say you should go to college simply to gain a skill to get a job. You should go to learn for its own sake. But maybe there should be a combination of the two, or at least by senior year have a plan.


By senior year, it's already too late. Either we're going to look at education as job training and that it has an intrinsic value or we're going to say that education is a right for all and essential part of being a citizen and a person. I honestly do not understand the notion of "more college than you can afford." If we simply take what's in the article at face value, this was the best school for her, to fit her educational needs. They were willing participants in this endeavor, partners in this. It's not like she simply showed up at NYU's door with a pile of cash in a gym bag. The admissions process generally involves all sorts of questioning. So NYU wanted her to attend as well. I don't think NYU owed her a job or job placement. But they did owe her a clearer picture of how much she would need to make to pay these loans off. How hard would that have been? I'm saying she bears NO responsibility for the debt, but she's the least powerful person in this story and to imply that it's a failing of parenting to want the right education for your child is just awful.

And, Aaron, NYU doesn't call itself a non-profit institution. It's a legal designation that it applies for and receives from the government. We shouldn't just accept that it doesn't mean anything. Obviously we disagree about that. But to ignore that the government is an actor here and could make changes in the way it does business is a little naive.

In terms of a business model, would NYU behave differently if the money it received wasn't guaranteed by the government? What if the federal government stopped offering loans? Remember, unlike a regular business where I walk in and pay for what I want, the money that NYU gets is really from the government. NYU is getting its money no matter what. If Cortney defaults on her loan, it doesn't hurt NYU. What if NYU had to make the loans themselves? Do you think their behavior would change?


I'm sorry, but what? "If we simply take what's in the article at face value, this was the best school for her, to fit her educational needs." That doesn't fit either the first paragraph, or the last: "They would do whatever they could to get Cortney into the best possible college, and they maintained a blind faith that the investment would be worth it." "I don’t want to spend the rest of my life slaving away to pay for an education I got for four years and would happily give back." The implication there is that the money WAS in fact considered, but not in anything more than the branding of the university; her educational needs were an afterthought, and she admits that she'd happily return the "knowledge" she got there, especially since her current job is in an entirely different field than what she studied. That's the problem, as it is with people who bought "too much house": they didn't consider whether they needed the space or needed the school; they just got it because they COULD--because they got in to the "prestigious" college, or because they qualified for the loan on the mortgage. Again, I feel for her lack of education on the subject, but at the same time, that's not the college's fault--that's on her family's desire to "blindly" have what others have; the same thing that encourages millions to overspend their credit each month to buy things they don't actually need. (Honestly, I can't deal with friends of mine telling me they live check-to-check when they go out to bars Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, and go out to expensive dinners or take trips to Israel and Japan.)

As for the rest:

1. Who said anything about simply starting senior year?
2. Education is already a right for all. Whether COLLEGE education is a right for all is debatable, but I'll say it is: that doesn't mean you can go to ANY college, though, any more than it does that every NYC high-school student can go to Stuyvesant/Hunter/Science/Tech/Juilliard. (And trust me, I made a mistake going to the HS I went to, trusting prestige over what actually interested me.)
3. I would like to imagine that someone smart enough to get into NYU is smart enough to consider what it will cost for four years and what paying that loan back will entail.
4. As the article implies, NYU doesn't want its students to go bankrupt--if they all get stuck with loans, then their endowment starts to unravel. Perhaps there's more they can do, but they're not the bad guys, and they do give scholarships.

And I'm sorry, but I do think there's a failure of parenting. (As does the article.) To want the "right" opportunity for your child is fine, but to blankly equate the "right" opportunity with the most expensive opportunity? To take out deep, life-crippling loans on FAITH? Would you defend stage parents, too, who just wanted the "right" opportunity for their kids?


By "more college than you can afford," I mean she did not have the parental or personal resources to graduate without incurring a crushing debt and with her chosen field, little likelihood that she'd have the income to pay it off.

No, it's not fair but cost was a factor in determining where I went to college and it is today for many young people I know. My friends who have children going off to college are definitely discussing debt with them as they make a decision about a school.

And I agree that the school could have done a better job spelling out how much she'd have to earn to pay off the mounting debt.



There's a real limit to the usefulness of this dialogue because you and I have extremely different basic worldviews. I'm happy to talk about it some more, but I think it's going to get pretty frustrating pretty quickly and I'd rather not let this devolve into a flame war.

Let me say this: As I said earlier, I don't wholly absolve this woman or her family, but I think the larger part of the blame does fall on the several large institutions involved here, not the least of which is actually the government, and, to an extent, the society at large. But, yes, I do also think that NYU, especially operating (as you seem happy with) as a business first, does have an obligation to be clearer about the actual costs of its "product." Putting everything on the consumer is an unfair burden.

I'm not saying that everyone has a right to go to the best school. I'm saying that if getting the best education for you requires a lifelong load of debt, we're heading to a system where the only people who receive the best educations are the wealthy. As state schools face cutbacks and rising tuitions, what other options are going to be available? What other options that are going to lead to productive future careers? We've all already talked and talked about privilege and the over-representation of a few institutions in the arts and the society at large. Is that a good thing? Do we want more of that?

Again, I think the article is pretty skimpy on the details of why Cortney chose NYU, what her other options were, what the attractions were. That's what I meant. I'm not saying they didn't consider the financial implications. I'm saying that obviously she chose NYU for some set of reasons. If we knew more about that, maybe I'd feel comfortable calling it a failure of parenting. But we don't.

Like I said, though, it really comes down to this: you're fine with a college acting like a business and I'm not. Period.


I think we're both capable of keeping this from being a flame-war, and I like these discussions specifically BECAUSE we have such different world-views. I was a bit snippy when I posted this morning (::shakes fist at the jackhammers of "progress"::), but my main concern was with you somewhat filling in the blanks in the article to serve your perspective.

You're right, though; our main disagreement comes down to whether or not a college should act like a business (and now, apparently, whether high-schools and education in general should, re: charter schools and Race to the Top). I don't have an issue with a college acting like a business so long as it's clear that it's a business (and I'd be happy if the government stopped subsidizing this non-profit nonsense, especially if that meant solely subsidizing students instead); what I've learned from reading some of the idealistic books and posts on the subject is that it's not. At the same time, reading excerpts from things like "Generation Me" make it clear that the people (and their parents) have a basic responsibility that they've decided to pass off, blame on, and lay at the feet of other people/institutions, and I'm not OK with that.

As for bad parenting, am I the only one who thinks it's irresponsible for a mother to allow their child to rack up $40,000 in credit-card debt, especially when they themselves can't pay that off? It's not like the mother took on this debt to help her child....


That's the thing I find frustrating about these kind of back and forths: they turn into each of us stating our bedrock principles, which is interesting and all, but we're not changing anyone's minds. I'm not okay at all with a college acting like a business. It's that kind of thinking that's degraded our education system. A good, complete and full education is a necessity in my mind and when colleges start focusing on their bottom line first and foremost, we're moving down a short, slippery slope to education being a privilege reserved for the rich. I can't abide by that.

All I see is a lot of buck passing. The college takes no responsibility for the state of its graduates' lives. Some grads don't take enough ownership over their own choices. For me, since the institution is larger, has more resources and, at the very least on paper, a stated mandate to serve the public good, they have a higher standard to live up to. I'm infinitely more concerned about the actions of large institutions that affect thousands of lives than the odious attitudes of some students.

My point about Cortney and her mother and the article is that it's all pretty sketchy. We get remarkably little context to their situation and it's easy to fill in the blanks with whatever you want to. I'm simply less willing to jump to "bad parent." 40 grand, over four years, while going to college in New York? It's a lot, but is it unreasonable? And it's loan money. My experience from dealing with loans for grad school was that, since you're dealing with businesses who profit from making loans, they often painted the rosiest possible picture of the loan repayment situation. Why jump to "they were naive" without even a stop at "they were suckered?"


I may also be misreading some of the things in the article; I thought that they'd received $60,000 in aid from Fannie Mae and $40,000 in credit-card debt -- not bank-assisted loans for school. $100,000, over four years, while going to college in New York--and that's just in debt--yes, that's unreasonable. And it's hard for me to stop at "they were suckered" considering that they continued to take out loans over those four years. It's not a one-time sucker-loan with ARM rates suddenly shooting up; did they not notice the warning signs when Fannie Mae STOPPED lending them money? No--they simply went to another creditor. If that's the ignorance of the suckered, it's of the active and willful kind.

As to the "bedrock principles"--I don't have any. I'm a very fact-based person, and if you can show me that a college-as-business model is damaging (or that off-Broadway theaters are inaccurately representing the race of playwrights), then I'm on your side. Again, I take issue more with the bold conclusions you jump to--think of me more as the devil's advocate than the troll. You say "We're moving down a short slippery slope to education being a privilege reserved for the rich," except that's not true. I don't think the market of rich kids is large enough to allow colleges to cater specifically to that demographic, and there are plenty of schools (not just state- and city-) that have lower costs. As with all businesses, schools will pop up to accommodate students who *can't* spend $100,000+ on a four-year degree; what you seem to be stuck on is that name-brand education will be reserved for the rich.

I don't think that's true, either--especially if the government subsidizes college education (student tax breaks, credits, and scholarships) and stops subsidizing schools. This is especially important in certain fields, like finance, medicine, and law, where name-brand education DOES have a noticeable impact, and again, the reason I find this article so troubling is that the idea of spending $100,000+ on a liberal arts education that is probably no better at NYU than a cheaper school--well it's such a common one.

I'm sorry, I can stop now.


The name-brand nature of education is actually a part of this and a key part of it. It seems a bit counter-intuitive since we're talking about a woman who is swimming under a mountain of debt from one of those brand-name colleges, but, in general, that name on the degree opens doors that another college's name doesn't. It affords opportunities, in many, many walks of life, that another degree just doesn't. And since, taking on a massive load of debt will be the only way for most people of lower socio-economic status to take advantage of that, it excludes a lot of people who, you're right, make the wiser choice and go to a different school, but then don't get the benefits of having attended the name school. It further concentrates influence and opportunity to a smaller and smaller set who can either afford the school completely outright or have other resources to minimize the costs. There are already schools that accommodate people who can't afford the "name-brand" schools, but they don't have the same end-results.

Just to be absolutely clear: this isn't a case of pure education. Are the teachers at NYU necessarily better than the teachers at SUNY-Fredonia? On the balance, probably not, depending. I'm not denigrating the SUNYs; I'm a proud believer in public schools. But a NYU degree does things for a person that a Fredonia degree doesn't.

When I'm talking about bedrock principles, I'm talking about things like whether or not a college should function like a business. I simply do not believe this. Personally, I believe all colleges should be public and free. It's not likely to happen in my time, but that's what I think is best for society. I have to say, I find your "I don't have principles; I'm fact-based" a bit of a dodge. You may just be playing devil's advocate, but you're advocating something. And that something has real consequences. This is what I was saying about the Rand Paul position. Your position, ultimately, supports education not being a right for all, but being a privilege for some. If the responsibility for the debt that a college degree (and let's be clear about this, not just at NYU, or elite colleges, but I know people still paying off college debt from smaller schools) now requires lands solely on the shoulders of the student, that discourages people from lower socio-economic rungs from going, which then hurts their career prospects. The fact that the college is "open" to all isn't the same as everyone having an equal shot to go there.


You're right, of course. If you believe that "all colleges should be public and free," then it's no wonder that you're reluctant to hold the student accountable. (And a bit of a surprise that you want to hold colleges accountable.) So let's avoid talking about that, because I'll just call it utterly impractical and we would just snipe around in circles.

I don't think I'm dodging, but here's what I advocate: for the names of colleges to be ignored in job applications. Base your decisions on their resume--on the time spent *in* college, perhaps, and on what they majored in (or had relevant work-experience with). Where possible, give applicants a brief test. Hard work and dedication--actual ability--should be what our job market prizes; our fixation on Names is killing American innovation.

I wouldn't be opposed to seeing the return of apprenticeships (and their guarantee of eventual jobs) and the eradication of cheap-labor's so-called "internship." At least in this fashion, students can pay for a direct and practical education with something other than money: with labor. (I seem to remember case studies, too, which asserted that people who pay for their education--in one way or another--work harder, because they know how much it is personally costing them.)

Ultimately, OPPORTUNITY is far more important than COLLEGE EDUCATION alone, and I agree that you shouldn't have to pay for the former--I just don't equate the former WITH the latter.


And, I should also add that Grad school fixes the health insurance issue. I was 26 when I started NYU. There was no law requiring my parents to keep me on their insurance. None of the jobs I had after college offered me health insurance. They got around it by referring to my position as temporary or because it was low-paid internship. . .all that nonsense. Through NYU I had nearly 100% coverage at all NYU hospitals/doctors for around $2000 a year. NYU medical school and its affiliates are ranked as some of the top in the country. If I paid for that coverage as a non-student I'd be looking at about $10,000 a year. If you've been in dead-end jobs for 4 years in a shrinking economy, $10,000 for 2 graduate classes and insurance for a year looks pretty good compared to $10,000 a year for just insurance.


Um. "Utterly impractical?" To do what basically every other industrialized nation does? Really? Impractical...how?

I agree with you about opportunity being more important and that the larger issue is our society's relationship to education and its purpose. I'm the first to dive into battle against credentialism. But I say attack the institutions and the structures rather than castigate the people.


99, what do you mean by "free" and "public"? I ask this sincerely--I may just not know enough on the subject. My understanding is that many of the countries you are referring to require you to pass tests, have limited numbers of slots for students (and for majors), and only cover tuition.

As for why I say "impractical," well, if you think our schools can handle both the current load of applicants, let alone those who wish to return to college to retrain or find a new job--not even factoring in how difficult it might be for some potential students to relocate to whichever school might have vacancies--then great. If you think our government can afford that sort of subsidization, even better! Oh, and make sure that none of those foreign countries require their citizens to serve in the military, because we do have the GI Bill here. (I dislike that option, especially in light of stop-loss's indentured servitude and other questionable military actions, but it IS an option.)

Scott Walters

Both Aaron and 99 are right. This isn't about the "best education," and I would argue that an NYU UNDERGRADUATE degree, or any degree received from a Research 1 university, is a rip-off because many of the undergraduate classes are taught by grad students and adjuncts while the high-profile profs focus on grad students and their own careers. These people bought a brand name, which is part of our disgusting consumerist society. Aaron's suggestion about not putting colleges on a resume would be a good start; 99's belief in a free education is a great goal as long as the field is made flat.

As far as Fredonia is concerned, that is where Tom Loughlin teaches, and you would get a real theatre education from him. Would it open doors in NYC? Some. But theatre people will argue until they are blue in the face that theatre is a "meritocracy" where "talent will out" -- right, let's clap for Tinkerbell.


You know, I actually pulled Fredonia out of the air, but probably somewhere in my subconscious. Weird.

And when I say "free" and "public," I mean exactly that: the university is free of tuition and funded with public money. And many, many, many other industrialized nations do this. It's not perfect in all places, of course, but yes, I think it would be possible here. If we as a society decided that we actually value education.

Again, I'm not saying that it means you just walk in the door and sit down and have a class. Everything else is the same: admissions, administration, the whole kit and caboodle. In some places there are fees and books need to be bought, so it's not without expense. BUT you don't walk out with a mountain of debt which, even if you chose a career that would provide a good salary, would hamper your choices thereafter. In the same way that healthcare is free in many industrialized nations, so that when you come out of the hospital, you're not crushed under a mountain of debt. I think, if anything, the last three years have shown us that building a financial system on the accumulation of debt is a bad strategy and we, as a society, should be looking for ways to minimize it.


If we as a society decided that we actually value education.

Ha ha ha ha!

Ho ho ho ho!

Hee hee hee hee!

"And I thought my jokes were bad."


I haven't made a study of this but I believe in other parts of the world a college education is much more heavily subsidized by the government yet much less available to all comers. A college education is a privilege.

In this country, we've gone in the opposite direction - a college degree is a right. We've made a decision that anyone can get a college education as long as they can pay or borrow enough. In fact, we encourage people to do it even when it may not be in their best interest in terms of their ability or career goals.

If you want to be a theatrical lighting designer, for example, do you need a b.a. and an mfa or would a 2-year technical course and an apprenticeship be better and cheaper?

The system we have may be more democratic, more fair, but it's probably not financially sustainable.

I mean, we're churning out bachelor's degrees, people in their early 20s are incurring huge amounts of debt but for what purpose?

Part of the problem is that you've got a poorly paid service economy on one hand and a highly paid, highly skilled technical economy on the other hand.

I'm all for getting a b.a. in history or English or women's studies but where does that person fit into the economy?

It used to be an employer would take a chance - your liberal arts degree was an example of an educated, well-rounded person and you could learn whatever skills you needed on the job. Now, sadly, they want someone who already has a set of specific skills.

I'm not saying you can't major in English or history if you love it - and spend four years just soaking up all of that intellectual stimulation. In an ideal world, college would be about learning for its own sake. These days, sadly, it's not enough.


In this country, we've gone in the opposite direction - a college degree is a right. We've made a decision that anyone can get a college education as long as they can pay or borrow enough.

How is that different from a privilege for a few? What kind of right can you only exercise if you have enough coin in your pocket? Is it really a right?


99, you're skipping over the larger point Esther's making (and which I was alluding to): in some of those other countries (I don't know which, since you haven't named any), you can get a free education, but it comes at certain costs to your freedom. Aside from the fact that you ARE paying for it in taxes that you can't avoid (and possibly paying MORE long-term, though I'm actually for that), the restrictions on this "free" education can be steep; in some cases, they may require you to attend a school you don't want to go to and may in fact force you to study something you don't want to study (or which isn't your first choice). And you can bet that the rich people in those countries don't have to deal with those issues, so in many ways, those systems are just as flawed.

Also, I'm not sure about the end game: if everyone automatically has the same privilege, then what's the point of working? I can think of many things I'd rather be doing: I work to ensure that down the line, I'll have earned the time to do those things.


I'm saying that, on the balance, it's a better system, even with the lack of "freedom" or the increased taxes (which, on the whole, I don't mind, particularly if the tax code is progressive).

Saying that both systems are flawed is a cop-out. ALL systems are flawed, but look at the results: we have a population saddled with debt, our economic edge is blunted because of the weakness of our education system and our citizens are less happy, less fulfilled and lead less enjoyable lives. We have some economic advantages for the time being and some cultural advantages.

And please, please don't pull that old "well, if everything is socialized, then there's no incentive to work" crap. A) I'm not talking about socializing the whole of the American economy and B) there are other reasons people work, or do things that generate money.

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