America’s Refuseniks

Millennials Who Refuse University Studies and Student Debt

One year ago, the news was awash with Billy Willson, a 4.0 GPA student from Kansas State University who decided to drop out of university after his first semester with this Facebook message: “YOU ARE BEING SCAMMED. You may not see it today or tomorrow, but you will see it some day.”  His post is still being shared and there are close to 9,000 comments mounting on this thread.  And as someone who has spent a long time in academia as a student and as a university professor, I can’t help but agree with Willson.  As the average increase in university tuition has exceeded that of the increase of salaries or the cost of living, we must begin to ask the tough questions as to why university fees in the US are outpacing the rise of inflation or cost of living increases, and why so many universities are playing a heavy hand in the student loan debt crisis.

As it stands today there are now several generations of university graduates unable to pay for their loans, from the millennials to those who graduated thirty years ago. And with the student loan debt in the United States at $1.3 trillion this year there is an alarmingly high percentage of graduates who are unable to command a salary high enough to pay back these loans.  The delinquency or default rate is approximately 17% and the non-payment rate at 43%. The end result is that new and older university graduates are facing a lifetime of living like Ross and Phoebe (without all the spare time to meet up with friends in the local café) and in order to get out of financial woes, many will be forced into debt consolidation or into a federal relief program.

And the situation of increasing amounts of student loans over the years was no accident.  In the US from 1997-2017, tuition increased to incredible proportions: at private universities tuition rose 157 percent, at public universities out of state tuition rose by 194 percent, and in-state tuition at public Universities has increased by 237 percent.  In the UK the figures are almost as grim as in the US where the average increase in university tuition in the UK grew by 260% between 1980-2014 while the cost of consumer goods grew at approximately 120% in this same period.  And many students in the UK are feeling robbed from the experience as well.

Articles like this by Zack Friedman in Forbes, which frames the ability to pay off students loans a simple matter of living a “humble lifestyle,” completely misunderstands the crisis facing most university graduates in the United States.  Graduates are facing a dismal job market and are not making choices between a one and two-bedroom apartment. They are making choices between having a home or not.  And then there is the ripple effect where not being able to pay student loans back due to low or no income, can actually mean that you are unemployable where government agencies have the power to seize state-issued professional licenses from residents who default on their educational loans. And in twenty-two states you can have your driver’s license suspended for falling behind in student loan repayments, making it impossible for most people to get to work.

And while there are troubling parallels between the student loan and the subprime mortgage crises being made, in addition to a House tax bill that will make graduate school impossibly unaffordable for most, there are even deeper ethical dilemmas facing higher educational institutions which are granting degrees with extremely high price tags and participating in the wholesale bilking of new graduates where students are forced to take jobs that don’t even require a university degree in the first place.

And while some might find Billy Willson’s story exceptional, the reality is that what he has protested against has merit.  In 1980 when the average cost of tuition, room and board at university was $9,000, the reality is that the money earned in 1980 bought far more than today and the $23,000 average price tag on public university and $30,000 for private institutions today means that students are paying more for education than ever before.  So, Willson is correct about students being scammed and more so about some of his critiques of higher education.  What bothers me about his campaign against higher education is why so many institutions and educational presses were silent on this matter.  Might it be that they feared fanning the flames of righteous anger, lest this anger have a domino-effect?

There were a handful of responses to Willson earlier this year, mostly by people refuting his points about courses offered at KSU, addressing the implications of university students being scammed and not learning vital information for post-uni life, and some sympathizing with him. But there were few articles which addressed the central critique of Willson which is about the extortionate cost of an education today in regard to the payout in the short-term post degree.

And facts speak clearly to this situation with the numbers of higher education enrollment in decline since 2013 to include the enrollment of international students who are often being lured from U.S. institutions given the rise of western institutions setting up campus in places like Singapore and China.  Students in both the UK and the US are opting out of university with increasing frequency as many are opting for apprenticeships, starting their own businesses, going to trade school, taking classes at community colleges or online, and entering school leaver programs which are gaining in popularity in the UK.

What is the way out for universities who want to maintain their student body before losing many to alternatives already taking hold?  Brown University just last week announced the end of all student loans for its undergraduate financial packages. Instead, it is replacing the loan structure with scholarships as the university has recently begun a $30m fundraising campaign which has thus far amassed over 2,000 donors.

As more and more people enter a lifetime of student debt and younger generations watch their parents suffer under this enormous burden, little does it matter if you have MBA or PhD after your name.  The reality today is that the education and job markets are completely different to how they were just 15 years ago.  We need to equip ourselves with the skills to resist caving into what is, for most people, a lifetime of debt.  And more importantly, we must teach the younger generations that books and learning are freely available at the local library while we work on viable alternatives to the soaring fees of universities and trade schools.  The bottom line is this: do we want to be a society which positions students for a lifetime of indentured servitude, or might we consider that education is an integral part of our society which benefits everyone?

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com. Read other articles by Julian.