I know a couple who are in their mid-forties and have three children. They carry over $200,000 in student loans between them and don’t plan on being able to pay them off for 20 years or more, which would put them in post-retirement age. The degrees never got them the paycheck they expected and the debt glooms over every personal decision they make. They hate it. They obsess over it. It’s damaged a significant part of their sanity and lives.

This is becoming a common story with students and college. They go automatically. They sign up for ridiculous debt that will cripple their livelihood for decades. They don’t get the job they think they are going to get. And many have wasted their time while there.

It would be simple to say to one of these grads “Wow. Look at that terrible, stupid decision you made.”

And if it were something else besides college, people would be saying it. If an 18 year old went into debt to buy a $100,000 car that didn’t work, one might want to call them stupid, especially if they didn’t think it through at all.

But maybe we should look at them as victims.

Some might say the lenders are to blame and that they are preying on inexperienced and naïve youth. This is probably true. After all, they receive bankruptcy protection and are protected by the state and so can be unscrupulous in who they target for loans. The lenders have all upside, no risk and an easy target that has been pre-convinced of taking out the loan.

The college-bound student, though, still has a choice in the matter and isn’t forced to take the loans. They can always analyze the risk/reward for committing to college before they enroll. If we take a step back though, we might see something big pushing them into that decision. The would-be-college student doesn’t make the decision entirely on an analysis of the future, but instead makes the decision under a powerful compulsion by powerful influencers. This can easily scramble any sensible decision-making.

Consider that the average near-high-school-grad has a few handicaps in decision-making. For starters, they are extremely young and inexperienced. Through the thirteen-year K-12 schooling process they’ve largely been prevented from any real work experience. They’ve had most decisions made for them, even tiny ones such as what they should study or when they are allowed to use the toilet. They’ve largely been prevented from making any decisions right up to the point where they have to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives.

If we look at the influencers in their lives who, beyond all reason, are promoting college and the debt that comes with it, we see some very powerful actors. They are authorities of every shape and to deny that they are right is difficult, scary and maybe near impossible. Here’s what these weakened minds are up against:

Parents: Yikes, the ultimate and immediate authority. They’ve been telling their kids what to do their whole lives. Parents feel like they have their own skin in the game. If their kid doesn’t go to college it signals that he or she is a failure. The parents might be scared that the un-college kid won’t get a job and end up being financially dependent on them. Tragically, that’s exactly what they might be pushing their kids into.

Peers: In the same boat as the victim, they push each other to go to college, often comparing who got into the best one. The student’s peers help drive the anxiety about not going to college.

School officials and teachers: Teachers and the guidance counselor, authorities for children for thirteen years, all universally demand that college is the next step.

The media: Whether it is the news or fiction, the conventional wisdom in the media is that one must go to college to survive.

The universities: Universities express the imperative to go to college, encourage kids to apply and of course often accept them with open arms. From the university’s point of view, college is essential, regardless the cost or the benefits. They express no compunction about selling a product to an 17 year old that costs tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The financial industry: The mighty lords of finance encourage kids to go, going so far as to extend tens of thousands of dollars to them in credit. It would seem odd that college is the only category of lending, beyond a modest credit card, they would extend to an eighteen year old, with no collateral, little ability to generate income and no credit history. This is because they are protected from default by the laws and government guarantees.

The government: The President himself has no qualms about insisting that college is necessary. From the mouth of the Whitehouse: “Earning a post-secondary degree or credential is no longer just a pathway to opportunity for a talented few; rather, it is a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.[i]

The culture: Probably since the introduction of the GI Bill, conventional wisdom in our culture has pointed towards college as the only path to survival. It’s now a tradition that goes unquestioned.

Employers: Historically, a college education was a clear advantage and signal for a potentially good employee. Much of this is lost now, and if we can put some words in today’s employer’s mouth, they probably don’t want students who studied useless programs and were so financially irresponsible with their debt. Imagine a business owner looking at a candidate and seeing that the only significant financial decision of their entire life was a catastrophic failure.

So, defenseless mind meet the institutional masters of the universe. Who are you to question the wisdom and sagacity of these experts and authorities? Question your parents? How dare you! Question the entire population of professors i.e., the smartest people in the country? Fool! Question the leaders of the financial world, the ones who manage eleven trillion dollars of capital without blinking? Peon! Dare question the leader of the free world and his four million minions? Heretic! You’re just a dumb teenager. Obey!

The reality is that the main person affected with this decision is the student, the one who may have wasted time and signed up for a $100,000 lifelong cross to bear. That is the criteria to examine, not the voices of authority.

Perhaps in a future article we can come up with a mental defense plan to clear out the arguments from authority.

Parents, for example, are probably scared, concerned and have been brought up with the same college propaganda as everyone else. Plus, it was different when they were going. They didn’t necessarily graduate with the crippling debt.

Peers are in the same mess as any student. They don’t know anything on their own.

School teachers and counselors typically don’t have an objective sense of the real world. They went through thirteen years of school, probably went immediately into a four or six year college program and then re-entered the school system. School is all they know.

The banks and universities just want the money. Every new student is another cow to milk. Someone might call the students “customers” here and that may be the case during the marketing and sales cycle of the banks and universities. But once enrolled, the debt is legally binding and the university takes the upper hand in terms of granting out grades and diplomas at their discretion. It’s not quite the same as being a customer of a restaurant or a hotel.

The government doesn’t care about students, as she is merely the ugly concubine of the banking sector. Student loan debt has surpassed consumer credit debt.  This industry must has its talons deep into the meat of the state.

Students should evaluate college and its financing with a serious and thoughtful look at how it could enable them to succeed or cripple them for life. It’s an important decision. Too important, in fact, to let it be dictated by external authorities.


[i] https://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/higher-education