The Pedagogy of Debt

Jeffrey Williams

College Literature, 33.4, Fall 2006, pp. 155-169 (Article)

Published by West Chester University DOI: 10.1353/lit.2006.0062

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Every month I write out a check for $660 to Sallie Mae. debt is not the kind of thing that people usually talk about. and autobiography have been common in literary criticism over the past decade.000 on the rolls of student debt. Confession. herself owes about $25. and editor of the minnesota review. despite all the various kinds of self-exposure people make. I still owe around $9. Now I also owe PLUS loans for my daughter’s undergraduate education. The Shameful Secret of Higher Education Jeffrey Williams teaches in the literary and cultural studies program at Carnegie Mellon University.000. He is one of the editors of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001). am a statistic. my daughter. memoir.The Pedagogy of Debt Jeffrey Williams I 1.000. but. At 46 and fifteen years out of grad school. Contrary . from sleeping with one’s professors to secretly devouring romances. making a combined total of $34. I simply abbreviate the entry in my checkbook as S-M. It hurts. I am one of 100.000 from my graduate school GSLs (I could not afford to pay them at first. for a payment of $660 a month for the next ten years. Besides that. so took the maximum four years of forbearance and started to pay them in 1994).000. His publications include Critics at Work: Interviews 1993-2003 (2004). who graduated in 2002.

and as a full professor. a largely privatized venture. but it only pays about 20k a year. and they owe far more than I did. in jokes. and how long she can wait to go to the doctor when the sore throat feels like strep. in flirtatious ripostes. in comparing notes. in the quintessentially middle class precincts of academe. She has a job in film in New York. The owners of the film company cajole her that she is paid partly in credits (she’s what’s called a Director of Development.000 above the mean for American households. but. and I console her that it’s better than grad school (she doesn’t have to teach comp. and she already has an actual. the forbidden is to talk about money. Hailing from the work- . Rather. To be sure.4 [Fall 2006] to reputation. most of my colleagues have children at a later age. that I can end each month without going farther into debt. Debt surely tones the experience of my daughter’s life. which is a like an acquisitions editor in publishing). whether I can travel to Europe (not since grad school). Gone are the days when the state university was as cheap as a lap top. And it is shameful. but it is just beginning for most of my students. full-time job). whether I can eat out (too often considering the debt). It is in fact the new paradigm of college funding. whether I live in a smaller or larger apartment. But it determines the texture of her life.We need to talk about it because it affects so many of those in the classroom seats in front of us and because it has increased so precipitously. $25. My debt to the company store has almost ended. the take-home from 20k barely pays half the rent for a small apartment. reflecting your failing—you must have done something wrong. Debt is not just a check every month but colors the day-to-day experience of my life. people talk about sex all the time. in bragging or bemoaning. But I think we need to talk about student debt more. I make a decent salary. Now it is. I was relatively lucky in the great academic job lottery. a pack of Ramen’s. the new paradigm of early to middle adult life. It has only been in the past few years. and loans are the way that individuals frequently pay for it. or will soon be.156 College Literature 33. or a proper meal for dinner. whether I can buy a house (not yet). Consequently it is also. like most social services. like salary and debt. people don’t descend to talk about bread basket issues. my particular circumstances are somewhat anomalous. as anyone who is familiar with New York real estate knows. It’s crass. considered a right like secondary education. whether she can have a slice of pizza. especially now. Still. By and large. I’m proud to subject my friends to the video where you can see her name in the credits. over a decade out of graduate school and a full professor. you’re a spendthrift or you’re not good enough to make more. it is not sex that is the great forbidden. like clipping coupons.

The standard term of payment is fifteen years. One can reasonably expect that it is nearer $30. The Guaranteed Student Loan (GSL) program only began in 1965. and to $6.067 in 2002.000 or considerably more. to $4. the average jumped from $3. Rightly so. when it was $9. room.At private universities. and now it is over $40 billion a year. In its first dozen years. issuing about $12 billion in total. the reconfiguration of the power structure of administration and faculty. especially public universities. and academic labor. from community colleges to Ivies.200. the amounts borrowed were comparatively small.755 in 1997. leeched out in payments of $300 or $400 or $500 a month. But this is the American dream? Over the past decade. the program grew immodestly. By the early 1990s. the program was a modest one. or so that they did not have to work excessively while in school.000. We tend to focus on the things that affect our experience rather than students’ experience. The Company Store The average undergraduate student loan debt in 2002 was $18. tuition. From 1965 to 1978.051 to $17. when my daughter first went. along with their BA or BS. which averaged $3.We need to deal with debt. It more than doubled from 1992.2 The immediate reason that debt has increased so much and so quickly is that tuition and fees have increased exponentially. in large part because college was comparatively inexpensive.Jeffrey Williams 157 ing classes. at roughly three times the rate of inflation. like books or travel to and . Tuition and fees have gone up from an average of $924 in 1976.000 in 2002.The average encompasses all institutions. Johnson’s “Great Society. professional perch. The more salient figure. nor the debt that parents take on to send their children to college. Bear in mind that this does not include other private loans. jumping to $15-20 billion a year.229 to $22. and board (though not including other expenses. a sizeable loan payment book. More than half the students attending university receive. there has been an avalanche of criticism of the university.1 Federal student loans are a relatively new invention. under the mantle of Lyndon B. when I first went to college. boosting the average total debt in 2002 to about $22. It has doubtless increased since.” Most of it focuses on the impact of corporate protocols on research. representing the majority of aid that the federal government provides. I’ve made it. but little has addressed the privatization of student debt. Added to this is charge card debt. attaining the gold of a secure.000 now. so the amortized amount will probably climb to $60. especially of its “corporatization.900.” It was intended to provide supplemental aid to students who otherwise could not attend college. fees. depending on future interest rates. 2.686.

to $10. tuition and fees were about $22.200 in 2000.” Now it would be impossible to work your way through college unless you have superhuman powers. paying for college no doubt forms part of the accelerating indebtedness of average American families. have undergone retrenchment if not austerity measures for the past twenty years (for instance.300 in 1980. $3. My focus here is on debt and its vicious cycle. tuition and fees were about $4.You don’t need a PhD to realize that neither cultivates good educational conditions.) Another way that has become common for parents to finance college is through home equity loans and home refinancing. the federal loans that parents take are Federal Parents’ Loans or PLUS. Sometimes politicians blame it on the fickleness or inefficiency of academe. in the five years I was at the University of Missouri. $6. at an Ivy League college you would have to work 136 hours a week all year.While it is difficult to measure these separately. As a point of comparison.818 in 2000 and $12. and pay his or her public university education.4 [Fall 2006] from home). whereas I.000 and total costs less than $7. In addition to the debt that students take on. there are few statistics on how much parents pay and how they pay it. Now.111 in 2002. students are also working more hours during school—often 15-20 hours a week. Marc Bousquet (2004) notes that. but it goes hand in hand with the rise in student worktime.400 in 1990. working as a dispatcher for a cement plant. Hence the need for loans as a supplement. and $54.275 in 1976. The reason tuition has increased so precipitously is more complicated. like many other parents in the 1990s. especially state universities. it experienced not only stagnant funding but “give-backs” during two years. a modest but comfortable salary. went up like a bottle rocket from $2.000 and the total $32. at an Ivy or like private school. In 1997 when my daughter entered Barnard (her diploma is from Columbia).562 in 1990. while my salary as an associate professor (at a state university) was around $38. one would have to work 52 hours a week all year long. There used to be a saying:“I’m working my way through college.000. while my father made about $25.000. where the university had to .000. $41. In addition to the steep rise in debt. In a particularly illuminating comparison. and many students are working far more. did.101 in 1980. during the 1960s. This has put a disproportionate burden on students and their families— hence loans. The median household income for a family of four was about $24.158 College Literature 33. even during school. when I went to Columbia in 1976. it would have been about 20 hours a week during school. even if a student is working and parents have saved. My parents did not have to take any loans. (The primary form of federally-backed loans that students take are Stafford loans.000 a year. a student could work 15 hours a week at minimum wage during school and 40 during summer. but most universities.

from the “Reagan Revolution” through the Clinton “reform” of welfare up to the present draining of social services (see Williams 2005). I have called this the “post-welfare state university” because it carries out the policies and ethos of the neo-conservative dismantling of the welfare state. but to grease the wheels of the market. liberal welfare state. and at major public universities often nearer 15%. the designers of the postwar university kept tuitions low. I have called this “the welfare state university” because it instantiated the policies and ethos of the postwar. Loans carry out the logic of the post-welfare state because they reconfigure college funding not as an entitlement or grant but as self-payment (as . The reason tuition has increased is in large part a significant reduction of federal funding to states for education and direct state allocations. It operates on the principle that citizens should pay more directly for public services. particularly from classes previously excluded (the ratio of funding for state universities was roughly 4:1. now the figure is nearer 30%.This represents a shift in the idea of higher education from a public entitlement to a private service. In the immediate postwar years. but a privatized service. such as “technology transfers” and other “partnerships” with businesses. in real dollars. so that the state paid $800 while a student paid $200 for every $1000 of tuition). The post-World War II idea.3 Now. whereby each citizen has to pay a substantial portion of his or her own way. the president of Harvard and a major policy maker. and states fund a far smaller percentage of tuition costs. not just to provide opportunity to its students but to take advantage of the best and the brightest to build America.Jeffrey Williams 159 return 5-10% of its allocated funding during the year. this is a shell game. that is replenished each fall like the harvest with each new freshman class. sliding the cost elsewhere—generally from the public tax roll to students and their parents.The state’s role is not to substitute for or provide an alternative realm apart from the market. but the steadiest way. held that the university should be a meritocratic institution. subsidizing citizens to participate in it and businesses to provide social services. and public services should be administered less through the state and more through private enterprises. opening the Ivy gates to record numbers of students. and in fifteen years at East Carolina and Missouri there were six years that saw no faculty raises because of freezes or reductions in state funds).To that end. to colleges and universities. forged by people like James Bryant Conant. states funded around 80% of their universities. and seemingly endless fund-raising through donations. the paradigm for university funding is no longer a public entitlement primarily offset by the state. Universities have turned to a number of well-known channels to replace the lost funds. While state legislators might flatter themselves on their belt-tightening. is through tuition.

it is no longer assured there either). in part carrying over from the war years and ethos. Loans are a personal investment in one’s market potential rather than a public investment in one’s social potential. which is finally a shift in vision of the future and particularly in the social hope for our young. This is presumably a good for the social whole. While it held a liberal belief in the sanctity of the individual—a meritocracy is premised on opening to individual potential— its unifying aim was for the social good. in part as a legacy of the New Deal. and receive useful training. higher education was conceived as a massive national mobilization. so it is an . all the atoms adding up to a more prosperous economy. and not as a state service but a privatized service. and higher education provides value-added. particularly in the industrial and postindustrial eras.160 College Literature 33. develop their talents. as well as Sallie Mae and Nellie Mae. as it leaves the principal to each citizen. like a vaccine assimilating a weaker strain of communism in order to immunize against it. scientists. administered by mega-banks such as Citibank. funding time and conditions for students—future citizens and workers—to learn. Those who attend university are construed as atomized individuals making a personal choice in the marketplace of education to maximize their economic power. in the voucher movement. but eschews dependence. and even humanists to strengthen the country. The classical idea of the American university propounded by Thomas Jefferson holds that democratic participation requires education in democratic principles. and in part in response to the Cold War. to produce the engineers. It adopted a modified socialism (that dare not say its name). as well as to become versed in citizenship. This represents another shift in the idea of higher education. but it is based on the conception of society as a market driven by individual competition rather than social cooperation.The state encourages participation in the market of higher education by subsidizing interest. and it defines the social good as that which fosters a profitable market. and it extends to the university. providing an exemption from work and expense for the younger members of society to explore their interests. In the postwar years. from youthful exemption to market conscription. like a start-up business loan. like a business. Now higher education is conceived almost entirely as a good for individuals—to get a better job and higher earning potential through one’s life.You have to depend on your own bootstraps. This obviously applies to elementary and secondary education (although.The reasoning melds citizenship ideals and utilitarian purpose. in the belief that it will benefit society in the future. The traditional idea of education is based on social hope. fostering “personal responsibility”). each individual is a store of human capital.4 [Fall 2006] with welfare. Society pays it forward. as endless reports tell us. This also represents a shift in the idea of higher education from primarily a social good to an individual good.

Moreover. is that interest is assessed and deserved in proportion to risk.) The utilitarian idea. In other words. in their financial aid calculations. like workfare instead of welfare. holds that society should provide advanced training necessary in a more industrially and technologically sophisticated world. this is bad capitalism. The new paradigm of funding sees the young not as a special group to be exempted or protected from the market.The premise of money lending and investment. . propounded by Charles Eliot Norton in the late nineteenth century and James C. in books like Bowling Alone. say for a home mortgage. they are excessive if not draconian. but no aid toward the actual principle or “investment. Even by the standards of the most doctrinaire market believer. they are designed more as an entitlement for banking than for students. providing inexpensive tuition. Despite the bearish state of the stock market. the largest lender. which are finally a deferred form of work. Loans. It offered its exemption not to abet the leisure of a new aristocracy. As a result of these policies. Something is wrong with this picture. both in the hours they might clock while in school as well as in loans. before they have developed skills and a purchase in the market. from students. not for students. stipulate a sizeable portion in loans). (The reasoning relates to the concept of franchise: just as you should not have to pay a poll tax to vote. the banks have profited stunningly.Jeffrey Williams 161 obligation of a democracy to provide that education. and indeed the GI Bill issued a return of 7:1 for every dollar invested.” For lenders. it presupposed the longterm social benefit of such an exemption. Conant in the mid-twentieth. but as already fair game in the market. banks bear no risk. But. and funding the massive expansion of places to study. The welfare state university promulgated both ideal and utilitarian goals. bemoan the passing of civic culture at the same time that they extol the market that has replaced civic with market culture). Sallie Mae. Debt puts a sizeable tariff on social hope. to provide emergency or minor supplemental aid. are not necessarily a bad arrangement. generous aid. you should not have to pay to become a properly educated citizen capable of participating in democracy. as well as created the conditions for civic culture. so they provide a modest “start-up” subsidy. as a major and mandatory source of current funding (most colleges. as currently instituted. and the structure of federal loan programs provides a safety net for banks.4 (I find it a bitter irony that conservatives. the federal government insures the loans. It extracts more work. How they work for students is that the federal government pays the interest while one is enrolled in college and for a short grace period after graduation (or simply leaving). as with a business loan. a rate of return that would make any stockbroker turn green. returned the phenomenal profit rate of 37%.

a report on coming of age for Generation X. We tend to think of it as a necessary evil attached to higher education.loss of Federal and/or State income tax refunds. what do they then learn? Especially if we are instructors and professors. As Lawrence Summers has pointed action. . The Pedagogy of Debt Debt is not just a mode of financing but a mode of pedagogy. the one debt you cannot forego. A corollary is that they explore liberally across the band of disciplines (hence distribution requirements). rationales for higher education. find you. They own you. in the Arnoldian credo the best that has been known and thought. . if instead we see it as central to people’s actual experience of the current university. .162 College Literature 33.We will not know the full effects of this system for at least twenty years.4 [Fall 2006] There is no similar safety net for students. unless you go under deep cover and erase your social security number. . In Late Bloomers. the traditional rationale is that we give students a grounding in humanistic knowledge.” Students pay their transport through higher education in hope of reaching the shores of a decent job in exchange for agreeing to future debt peonage. As a reminder. The current system of funding has skewed the scales of equal opportunity. we have a special charge to investigate the lessons of debt and what we are actually teaching when we usher them into the university. As the standard “Borrower Notification” reads. There are a host of accepted. is student loans. 3. as Hans Gruber remarks in the film Die Hard. if sometimes contradictory. . simply. Or. and meritocracy is waning. but extraneous to the aims of higher education.And they will. students from less privileged classes will not go to college. A related rationale is that the university is a place where they . although one can reasonably predict it will not have the salutary effects that the GI Bill had. (USA Group Guarantee Services) Like buying at the company store.wage garnishment. and they are becoming very rich on it. failure to repay your loan according to its terms and conditions will result in reporting your default to a credit bureau and may result in any or all of the following: . the bottom quarter of the wealthiest class of students is more likely to go to college than the top quarter of the least wealthy students. even before recent debt “reform” legislation. David Lipsky and Alexander Abrams have defined their generation as one of “indentured students. On the more idealistic end of the spectrum. once you sign the chit you are locked into the system. Even if you are in bankruptcy and are absolved of all credit card and other loans.

subject to the business franchises attached to education.At the most worldly end of the spectrum. They easily identified green as go and red as stop.Almost every college and university in the US announces these goals. culture.We might tell them the foremost purpose of higher education is self-searching or accumulating humanistic knowledge. it actually has its roots in Socrates’ dictum to know yourself. civic. It is not an enclave or space out of time but a pay-as-you-go transaction. and provides an exemption for preparation before entering that world. like any other consumer service.This utilitarian purpose opposes Newman’s classic idea of a refugium. while this sometimes seems to abet the “me culture” or “culture of narcissism” as opposed to the more stern idea of accumulating cultural knowledge. another traditional rationale holds that higher education promulgates national culture. like diplomats who have an exemption from New York City parking fees. as well as the bank with the easy access webpage to get their loans.All the entities making up the present university complex reinforce this lesson. in educating citizens. and they are not special. In the middle of the spectrum. A more progressive rationale might reject the nationalism of that aim and posit instead that higher education should teach a more expansive and inclusive world culture. but it still maintains the principle of liberal learning. stitching together idealistic. but consumers. a common rationale holds that higher education provides professional skills and training. we teach the profundity of American. or more generally Western.Jeffrey Williams 163 can conduct self-exploration. and in many ways it was Cardinal Newman’s primary aim in The Idea of a University (1996). These hold that the university stands apart from the normal transactions of the world. (Check your university’s mission statement. Students have learned . but their experience tells them differently. and utilitarian purposes in a perhaps clashing but otherwise conjoined quilt. but see the university as attached to the world rather than as a refugium set apart from it. Just as children receive a lesson about traffic lights different from the one in driver education booklets. debt teaches that higher education is a consumer service. one that is more accurate to their experience and how the world works. to the Barnes & Noble running the bookstore and the pseudo-Golds Gym running the rec center. from the Starbucks kiosk in the library and the Burger King counter in the dining hall. the lesson that young adults are taught in paying for university education diverges from well-intentioned rationales. Both rationales maintain an idealistic strain. but shares the fundamental premise that higher education exists to provide students with a head start entering adult life. but their response to yellow was more troubling: they said that it meant to go faster. First.) There was a study a number of years ago of how children recognized traffic lights.

Most likely students have already recognized the situation they face and adapted their career plans accordingly. It also is flawed because it assessed students’ responses at time of graduation. rather. like a casino. There is a certain impermeability to the idea of the market: while you can fault social arrangements. Third. or white. green. Nellie Mae.This is not because students have become more venial or no longer care about poetry or philosophy. whereby freedom is constituted as an ability to make choices from all the shelves. one of the major lenders. expecting we should respond like personnel at any other service counter. It is unfortunate if you don’t have many chips to lay down.The more rational choice is to work for a top-25 corporation. Many bemoan the fact that the liberal arts have faded. in real terms. and even sex (which is a significant part of the social education of students in college)5 simply form sub-markets. or to join the Peace Corps. as Henry Giroux and Juliet Schor have shown in recent books. constraints. debt teaches career choices. discounted the effect of loans on such choices. or to become an elementary school teacher at 24k. or go to law school. from about 8% before WWII to 22% now. 17% on any statistical survey is not negligible. get jobs. Following up on the way that advertising indoctrinates children in the market. and that the market is natural.The best evidence for this is the warp in majors toward business. It teaches that it would be a poor choice to skimp by on waiting tables while writing your novel.164 College Literature 33. and their. whereas business has grown by more than double. black.4 [Fall 2006] this lesson well when they tell us they pay our salaries and lobby for an A. or nonprofits like community radio or the women’s shelter. It rules out culture industries like publishing or theatre or art galleries that pay notoriously little. or simply when they saw things optimistically. can lay their chips down. debt teaches a worldview.”They concluded “The effect of student loans on career plans remains small. Debt teaches that the primary ordering principle of the world is the capitalist market. Finally. they have learned the lesson of the world in front of them and chosen according to its. ideas. There is no realm of human life alterior to the market. Debt teaches that democracy is a market. and having chips is a matter of the luck of the social draw. and implacable. but the house will spot you some. it is fundamentally skewed because it assumes that students decide on career plans tabula rasa. student loans directly conscript college age students into the market. who do you fault for luck? . before they actually had to pay the loans. Second. toward making more money. and pay bills. and it is fair since. the rules are clear and anyone.” This is a dubious conclusion. inevitable. reporting that “Only 17% of borrowers said student loans had a significant impact on their career plans.And the market is a good: it presumably promotes better products through competition rather than aimless leisure. knowledge.

The disparities of wealth are an issue of the individual. its role is not to regulate or interfere with the market. Lastly. or failing.The public sphere operates as a market and thus is best administered as a privatized service. social entitlements like welfare only promote laziness rather than the proper competitive spirit. Debt thus teaches the intractability of class. so you should not complain about it but get a job with a salary to pay it off. the present system of student debt is wrong. debt teaches a sensibility or feeling. Debt teaches tough love toward welfare: if you have to pay your college loan. It literalizes what Barbara Ehrenreich calls “the fear of falling” (1989). as most consumer loans. it plays off pleasure and pain. inducting students into the realm of stress. have recognized the untenable prospect of student . It offers the pleasure. debt teaches civic lessons. who internalize as a social rule the struggle of the climb and are never entirely secure about their purchase.You are how much you can make. and pressure over their precarious toehold. which she defines as the quintessential attitude of the professional-middle class who attain their standing through credentials rather than wealth. which in turn give you all of the products on the shelves. minus how much you owe. like coffee in the morning. Debt teaches that the social contract is an obligation to the institutions of capital. reinforced with each monthly payment. except to ensure the level of the table. or knowledge of the liberal arts. debt is your own problem. And if you look at the productivity statistics of the college-educated World War II generation.Jeffrey Williams 165 Fourth. including Princeton and UNC-Chapel Hill. It also teaches the relation of public and private. Society’s Debt to the Future If you believe in the social hope of the young. Education provides value-added to the student. Like most powerful feelings. a number of universities. Each citizen is a private subscriber to public services.The worth of a person is measured not according to some grand humanistic conception. and should pay his or her own way. opening to the dynamic forces of competition. cultivation of intellect and taste. deferring the pain of scrambling and working to pay for it. It inculcates the distinctive affect of social climbers. It teaches that the state’s role is to augment commerce. debt teaches the worth of a person. Despite Nellie Mae’s bruiting the high rate of satisfaction. but according to one’s financial potential. We should therefore advocate the abolition of student debt. of immediate gratification (the respite in college) and hope that a product will fulfill you (good job). why should you pay for someone’s welfare? Fifth. but to provide a catalyst to it. worry. rather than society. Debt makes concrete the feeling of insecurity. 4. abetting consuming which spurs producing. it is counter-productive.

financial as well as civic. and banks take no risk. then they should only receive a 1 or 2% administrative surcharge. if education is a social good. although it could be administered on the state or on the federal level. say. It would call for a set term of. Adolph Reed. cutting out the middle men of banking.4 [Fall 2006] debt and now stipulate aid without loans.” One other solution that I have proposed is for programs oriented toward loan abatements or forgiveness. or to regulate reduced interest rates. it is not out of reach (he estimates it would cost $30-50 billion a year. This would help those in generation x or y who have already incurred loans and are under the weight of debt. A more far-ranging solution. but either to shift to direct lending. It should be the official policy of every university to forego loans. other than on an emergency basis.” has made the seemingly utopian but actually practicable proposal of free tuition for all qualified college students. that goes to the heart of the problem. Or there should be a national. and that. Such a proposal would require federal funding. and throwbacks like the Works Progress Administration. then we should support it. given current spending on loan programs. I do not necessarily think that they should be exempt from reasonable work. so that it realizes the principle of equal opportunity but avoids “class warfare. expanded and better funded programs like AmeriCorps.The brilliance of Reed’s proposal is that it applies to anyone. a short term solution should be to retain the basic structure of student loans. then it is no better than war profiteers who drain money from public coffers for a necessary service.And it should be the policy of the federal government to convert all funds—more than $40 billion—to direct aid. which only represents a portion of the military budget).166 College Literature 33. two or three years of service in exchange for a fair if modest salary and. My proposal takes pointers from a combination of European models of national service. rich or poor. under the GI Bill (one of his articles is “A GI Bill for Everyone”. as part of a campaign of the Labor Party for “Free Higher Ed. Reed 2004). If banks still process loans. such as Pell Grants. In fact. He reasons that. the loans are funded by the federal government. is free tuition.This is a step in the right direction. non-profit education foundation. What I have in mind is a form of national service. . as charge card companies extract from businesses when processing a payment. Even if this can only be enacted in the long term. forgiveness of a significant portion of education loans per year in service. administered from the federal government to universities. The agency should have to pay it back. If Sallie Mae makes a 37% profit on a public service. that it had great benefit. that operates at margin and administers the loans without profit. more consequentially. it would save money. Although I think that students should be exempt from ordinary pressures of expense or future indebtedness.

One is a very successful undergraduate program called the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program. it is not only in our self-interest—but for those we encounter. and criticism. through face to face contact. it would teach us what is useful. granting an unencumbered education in the expectation of national service. for instance. Such a program would have obvious benefits for students. These proposals might seem far-fetched. could be sent to community colleges or school disticts to consult on programs. designed to recruit some of the better but usually less wealthy high school students to go into teaching. On the postgraduate level. as well as giving them experience beyond school and more intangibly a sense of pride in public service. it would likely foster solidarity or esprit de corps. or as required national service does in some European countries. relevant.This program could extend to the PhD level. or to teach special courses to students.” who would teach and consult in areas that have impeded access to higher education. as the national service that the World War II generation performed did for soldiers from varied walks of life. were also far-fetched. or the Peace Corps in 1955. for a term of three or four years after graduation. As a side effect. A PhD in literature or history. and needed in what we do. It carries a generous scholarship as well as other “enrichment” benefits. it would hold substantial benefits. often rural or sometimes inner city. reaching those in remote or impoverished areas. helping to remedy graduate indebtedness as well as the job crisis.Jeffrey Williams 167 While this program would not solve all ills. Taking a page from the GI Bill. it would forward the goal of a Citizen’s Bill of Rights. It would put academic expertise to a wider public use. from preschool to university. It would work toward the prize that we should all keep our eyes on: full employment. but programs like social security in 1918. It requires that students teach in less privileged school districts. we should be calling on and pressuring political candidates for more teachers in our classrooms. There are several existing programs that we can steal a page from and expand. there are similar programs designed to bring doctors to rural or impoverished areas that lack them. to teach upgrade courses for veteran teachers on recent developments in literary scholarship.As a side effect. and what is not.We should build a system of “National Teaching Fellows. the WPA in 1930. it would foster a better image of academe. It would also work toward the goal of conceiving higher education as a national right and value for the larger public good. history. that subvent part of medical school training in exchange for a term of service. Just as law and order political candidates promise more police on the streets. the GI Bill in 1940. Conversely.The program would not only have benefits for us—that is.We need to imagine a better future and develop . giving them a way to shed the draconian weight of debt.

See Lipsky and Abrams 1994 on the history of the or education. where the wealthier will do fine. so it is hard to discern the figures for those in literature. Jr. One can assume they are substantially higher now. “Student Financial Aid” 2003.428 in This is a decent salary. But the parallel statistic. 2004) and Dudzic and Reed (2004) on the analogy to the GI Bill. 2 Dec. cultural studies.ed. 2003. otherwise we are moving toward a Hobbesian America. This includes all graduate programs. for the first time in 2004. like Pell Grants. one could look to novels of student life.000 part-timers in 2001. Dudzic. fortunately. The average. “postbaccalauriate loans” have more than doubled in seven years.168 College Literature 33. Mark. National Center for Educational Statistics. “How the University Works. there were 369. Notes I draw these and many of my statistics from the compendious Digest of Education Statistics.4 [Fall 2006] policies to foster it. and will condition the life of my student for at least the next decade. 2003. whereas now the ration is nearer 1:1. 5 Other than statistics. 2004. one had a debt of 75k and the other 0. “Free Higher Ed. for a ratio of nearly 4:1. 4 See Reed (2001.000 full-timers and 495. 2 Loans exceeded grants. 2004. from Fitzgerald’s The Far Side of Paradise (1920) to Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004). Some anecdotal evidence: of the two PhD students I worked most closely with at Missouri. of course. It is a more marginal salary if you deduct the payments from 75k off the top of the takehome. without debt. of full and parttime “instructional faculty. Marc. as well as gibill. and Lewontin (1997) for an excellent account of the buildup of the postwar university. Student debt impedes a full franchise in American life. and Adolph Reed. This makes debt yet more troubling.000 part-timers. but the rest of us will be working off the term of our indenture. In addition to the undergraduate predicament. with 618. 3 See Menand’s “Marketplace of Ideas” (2002) for a lucid account of the postwar university and its context. beat the odds and got full-time jobs paying in the mid-40s.500. I cite 2002 because it is the most recent year with final tabulations at the time of my writing.” is not encouraging: in 1970.572 in 1992-93 to $38. which depict college not as an intellectual but as a sexual awakening. and the General Accounting Office (GAO) report. Lemann’s The Big Test (1999) on Conant and the postwar implementation of an academic meritocracy. so any American should be against it. is $37. Digest of Education Statistics. http://nces. Pittsburgh. as roughly half those earning PhDs will not even attain a full-time job to pay it. 1 . Both. Works Cited Bousquet.” The Nation 23 (February): 16-19. for present statistics. PA.000 fulltimers and 104.” Lecture delivered at Carnegie Mellon University. from $18.

2004. ———. 1994. 1997. Report to the Honorable Rod Paige. 169 . “Student Financial Aid: Monitoring Aid Greater than Federally Defined Need Could Help Address Student Loan Indebtedness. Williams. et al. no.. Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.” The Progressive (January): 25-27. Reed. 2001. 2002. Repring. Late Bloomers: Coming of Age in Today’s America:The Right Place at the Wrong Time. 1996. Lewontin.” ACLS Occasional Paper.” 2003. Ed. GAO-03-508.” Dissent (Fall): 53-58. Frank M. “The Post-Welfare State University. Lipsky.Jeffrey Williams Ehrenreich. New York: Farrar.” ALH 17. Barabara. Adolph. DC: United State General Accounting Office. “The Marketplace of Ideas. Jeffrey J. New York: American Council of Learned Societies. Turner. New York:Times Books. by Noam Chomsky. “A GI Bill for Everybody. Menand. Louis. Secretary of Education. Lemann. Newman. C. and Alexander Abrams. New York: Pantheon.Washington. John Henry. “The Cold War and the Transformation of the Academy. New York: New Press. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2005. “Majoring in Debt. 1999.4: 190-216.” In The Cold War and the University:Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years. The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. Straus and Giroux. R. 1852. 1989. David. . Nicholas. 49.