Heard on NPR tonight, from an Occupy Wall Street protestor:
It’s unfair that someone has to graduate from college with so much debt, and then not even have a job.
I’m sympathetic. I dropped out of college, and with enough debt that I couldn’t go back for several years. And now I still have a significant amount of debt from my graduate program. And teaching at a private college I watch many students graduate with a heavy load of debt, and lately have had some begging me to help them find jobs. So I get it. But it’s wrong on multiple levels.
First, it’s not necessary to graduate with heavy debt loads. I was the only one of 4 kids in my family who left college with significant student loan debt. My brothers and my sister went to the local college, living at home and working while they went to college part-time. Yes, it took them longer to graduate–that means they paid with time instead of money.
Second, students are fortunate to be able to get student loans so readily. If we didn’t have a public policy of providing and guaranteeing loans, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to graduate in 4 years–they’d have to take the path my siblings took or else not get an education at all. We already have a public policy that helps them out–they neither recognize nor appreciate that.
Third, education costs money to provide, and the students are the primary beneficiary. Education is not a perfect private good, because it has substantial positive externalities, so some subsidies are fine (and for those students who go to state schools, they are normally getting some pretty substantial subsidies; some private college students are, too). But it doesn’t seem unfair to ask the primary beneficiary to pay the bulk of the cost. The assumption seems to be that others have a responsibility to provide student X’s education–but why that’s their responsibility and not student X’s is hard to explain.
Fourth, it certainly stinks to not be able to find a job, but who is responsible for ensuring recent graduate X has a job? It’s easy to blame “the system,” but that doesn’t get us anywhere. What kind of system could we design that would actually ensure everyone a job, yet not have the downsides of a planned economy? And just how widely are they casting their net in looking for a job? While the national unemployment rate is 9%, the unemployment rate in North Dakota is 3.2%, in Nebraska 4.2% and in South Dakota 4.7%. In New York, where the protests began, it’s 8%. I don’t care if you don’t want to live in the plains states–nobody has a duty to bring a job to you; there are jobs available if you’ll get on the bus and go to them. Sure, for a homeowner with a family that’s a difficult choice (although immigrants from other countries do it all the time, going further away from home–including, probably, these folks’ ancestors), but for a recent graduate from college, most of whom don’t have mortgages and kids? Labor needs to be mobile-if you’re not willing to be mobile, that’s your problem, not someone else’s.
Fifth, how is their position fundamentally different from that of an entrepreneur who’s borrowed money to try to start a business? The recent grad has also borrowed to make an economic investment they hope will pay off. If nobody’s responsible for guaranteeing the entrepreneur’s success, then why is someone responsible for guaranteeing the recent graduate’s success?
Their frustration is real, it’s understandable, and the cause of it does demonstrate that our system is not functioning well at the moment. But it does not indicate that another would work better over the long run, and it does not indicate that anyone else has a responsibility to provide something to them. Because, make no mistake, it’s ultimately never “the system” that provides anything, but all the other people within that system.
I’m reminded, as I am so often, of Horace Walpole’s aphorism that “this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” These “students” feel, but they do not think.