Student Debt as Indentured Servitude

The American Association of University Professors, the professional organization of American academics, has published an article in its official publication, Academe characterizing student loan debt as a new form of indentured- servitude.

According to the piece, by Jeffrey Williams, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon:

Over the past thirty years, students’ freedom has been progressively curtailed—not in their immediate rights to speech but in their material circumstances. Now, two-thirds of American college students graduate with substantial debt, averaging nearly $30,000 (if one includes charge cards) in 2008 and rising, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics and other sources.

The growth in debt has ushered in a system of bondage similar in practical terms, as well as in principle, to indentured servitude. The analogy to indenture might seem exaggerated but actually has a great deal of resonance. Student debt binds individuals for a significant part of their future work lives. It encumbers job and life choices, and it permeates everyday experience with concern over the monthly chit.

While technically any form of debt would seem to fall under his qualification for “indentured servitude,” he’s got a point. Carrying student debt has implications for virtually all decisions adults have to make, from where to live, to career choices, to decisions about marrying and starting a family.

Williams notes that the United States has considered this problem before. In the aftermath of World War II, scholars considered what to do about higher education and how to educated more Americans to promote economic and scientific growth.

The report issued, 1947’s Report of the President’s Commission on Education maintained that “free and universal access to education must be a major goal in American education.”

The commission recognized the growing importance of college in determining people’s qualification for professional jobs. Without free education, the commission said, “education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening them.”

The commission appeared to be talking about access to higher education, not just its price, but the principle still seems to apply. Those who graduate from college with high debt start their professional lives significantly behind those who graduate debt free. It’s very, very difficult to break out of that financial disadvantage.

Making all public higher education free in the United States would cost between fifteen and thirty billion dollars.

That’s roughly what this country spent on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer