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Occupy Wall Street is about student debt

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Up to this point I hadn’t thought much about the macro reasons behind Occupy Wall Street, assuming it was driven by a general disaffection with economic inequality. But when I checked out We Are the 99 Percent this weekend, I saw a clear common thread among the protesters: the presence of overwhelming student debt.

Student loans are a unique kind of financial instrument. They are the only kind of debt that can’t be forgiven through bankruptcy, even when the loans come from private sources rather than government-affiliated institutions (like Sallie Mae). These loans have been a pretty standard part of the American education system for the past decade, especially among private, for-profit universities, where 96% of students graduate with an average of $33,000 in debt [PDF].

Protestor at Occupy Wall Street

Indeed.

The past 70 years of American education have been built around a simple social contract: go through four years of liberal arts education, and there will be jobs waiting for you on the other side. You can even take on an otherwise unconscionable amount of debt to do it — after all, education is an investment, not just an ordinary expenditure.

Over the past three years, that social contract has been broken. The jobs that used to be available to young people with passion and drive but no appreciable skills are gone, and the graduates who would have taken those jobs are unemployed. But they still bought into the social contract, accepting suffocating amounts of student debt to get the education that didn’t give them the skills they actually needed to get a job. And just when these young people should be at the height of productivity — working hard, inventing things and starting companies — they are left deep in debt with no marketable talent.

So they’re angry, although without the channels or eloquence to express that anger in a meaningful way. So they lash out at the faceless financial-industrial complex — the people who ostensibly have created and maintained this destructive environment from behind the curtain.

But reality is much more complicated. While the folks on Wall Street have managed to hack the system, manipulating a need for liquidity and market inefficiencies to drive incredible financial returns, they’re hardly the only group at fault for a badly broken educational framework.

As a first stop, the frustrated graduates should take a look at the for-profit university administrators who adopted shady, over-promising marketing practices or the government officials who allowed often well-intended laws to be hijacked to saddle students with unforgivable debt. Or perhaps they should take a look at the state education heads and politicians who have resisted a move toward more practical, vocational education for some segments of Americans.

I maintain that unemployment is not high due to a lack of jobs — General Assembly, for one, has plenty of open positions. Rather, it is high due to a colossal mismatch of skills and market needs resulting from a dated and broken educational system.

The protestors at Occupy Wall Street are right to be angry. But articulating the problem is the first step in fixing it.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

October 9th, 2011 at 2:02 pm