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Defund the Colleges

We cannot continue to fund the beast that is American "higher education."

The debate over student-loan forgiveness tends to omit three crucial points. First, college graduates have been singled out as the one demographic effectively denied relief in bankruptcy. Second, schools have received most of the loan money but none of the debt. And third, young people, and especially young women, historically began families in their twenties when it’s healthiest to do so, something that college and protracted loan-repayment schedules discourage. 

Few observers even note, much less contemplate, how the bankruptcy code has been repeatedly amended to effectively deny relief to one, and only one, constituency: college graduates, overwhelmingly composed of young Americans. Much of human history involves the tension between the few rich, the creditors, and the many not-so-rich, the workers and debtors. Indeed, the ancient world regularly celebrated jubilee years where debts were forgiven when a critical mass of borrowers could no longer service them.

In the modern era, debt relief is extremely common, usually called “readjustments,” settlement agreements (if legal action is pending), or, most distastefully, bank bailouts—debt relief for the super-rich, under the rationale that banks are “too big to fail.” Also called “writing down” loan obligations, these practices are a regular part of the rough-and-tumble business world. In fact, debt relief in the form of bankruptcy is so basic and historic that the United States Constitution mentions it specifically in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4.

Why can middle-aged Americans with consumer debt get a clean slate and a fresh start in bankruptcy, but college graduates with student-loan debt cannot? Why are young Americans singled out for such harsh treatment? “They didn’t need to go to college, so their debt is elective,” some say. But consumer debt can also be elective (and irresponsible), yet it remains dischargeable. “Elective” is also questionable in this context, since young people are, by definition, inexperienced and in need of guidance in making most decisions, especially long-term financial ones. Young people are relentlessly told that “everyone should go to college” to get a good job, and are given the impression that simply attending college is a success, hence boasts like, “she’s the first in her family to go to college.”

Statements like these are generally irresponsible and tend to mislead our youth, yet they come from high-level public figures like American presidents. Too often, they end up influencing kids and saddling them, and only them, with life-long non-dischargeable debt. That young people have been unsuccessful in challenging a policy that singles them out as undeserving of relief only shows—surprise, surprise—that unlike banks, they are not an organized lobbying or litigation force.

And who gets most of the student loan money? The schools. But who gets all the debt? Our young people. Many have noted this endless upward spiral in tuition, fueled by easy government money. Worse, the money doesn’t even fund instruction or the transmission of knowledge: It is generally not used for books or digital resources, or more effective professors, or better equipment for scientific study. Instead, much of the money goes either toward campus amenities (think LSU’s lazy river) or administrators in heavily politicized positions like “diversity officer,” director of student affairs, or Title IX coordinator. 

These administrative positions promote harmful left-wing ideologies and movements that foment civil unrest, such as “anti-racism,” critical race theory (“CRT”), and Black Lives Matter (BLM), all of which amount to invidious discrimination against non-favored groups such as Christians and men, while manufacturing and peddling grievance to the detriment of everyone—but especially to those starting out in life. These positions now comprise an administrative state within the university, increasingly calling the shots on everything from orientation programs to class content and now even faculty hiring

Williams College in Massachusetts recently announced it will pay tuition for the low-income students it admits. It is about time. Wealthy colleges and universities, including the likes of Harvard, with billion-dollar endowments, have shamefully indebted their students since the student loan program began, all the while grandstanding with talk about educational accessPut your money where your mouth is and fund students in financial need yourself. 

Finally, every government policy should be viewed through the lens of familial well-being: Will a measure encourage stable and healthy families, the most basic unit of society and the key to a nation’s future? Moreover, ignoring how education policies are hostile to young and healthy family formation has enabled bad-faith arguments for illegal immigration. A sound domestic policy would not herd most of the nation’s young people into a system that takes their time, talent, and treasure to push resentment and radicalization, when they could be entering the workforce, earning money, contributing to society, and starting families. If we need workers and to reverse our population decline, then we should ask first if our policies encourage family formation, not turn to illegal immigrants who suppress wages for low-income Americans.

Female fertility is highest from the age of 15 to 25, declines in age 25 to 35, and plummets after that. Virtually nobody discusses this. And very few state the obvious: Herding all young people, but especially young women, into a politicized higher education (sic) system, where they are not only radicalized but incur life-long debt, means that society is making the one job that most women eventually want more difficult. Motherhood is also the job a country most needs to be done well; that is, with stable marriages and committed fathers.

A truly pro-woman society would not put women on an educational and professional trajectory designed for men. Independent thinkers have suggested that women not be subject to time limits for degree completion. Fifty years of feminism, started by well-heeled, white-collar women who romanticized jobs as “careers,” combined with 50 years of fall-out from the sexual revolution, like skyrocketing illegitimacy in both inner cities and rural America, has taught us the hard way that these ideologies lead to ruin. Drug addiction and criminality have surged in precisely those areas where rates of marriage and intact families have declined. 

What to do? First, absolutely no action on student-loan forgiveness should happen unless the American higher-education system is reformed from top to bottom. Needed corrections are too numerous to list, though the National Association of Scholars has tried to document most, including reducing the amount of government funding to schools spent on administrators. In truth, a five-year moratorium on the Title IV student-loan program is necessary to give stakeholders (federal and state officials and American families and taxpayers) a chance to audit leading state and private institutions before they produce yet more ignorant and indebted youth. 

In that time period, young Americans would undoubtedly do something far more productive than four years in campusland. In the meantime, instead of blanket, one-size-fits-all steps like the debt-forgiveness proposals currently under discussion, bankruptcy relief must extend to student-loan debt for those graduates who find themselves in financial hardship, just as it does to consumer debt for adults. 

Those who want young people to remain in debt pit those who didn’t attend college against those who did, saying that this type of relief is unfair to the former. By this logic, no one should get bankruptcy relief, because such discharges leave others holding the bag. Are we prepared to go there? Are we going to deny bankruptcy to consumer debtors? Food stamps to those with low income? Medical care to the uninsured? Others hold the bag in these cases as well. They also say debt relief would benefit high earners like lawyers and doctors who borrowed a lot for their degrees. But bankruptcy happens on a case-by-case basis; judges can and do distinguish deserving filers from undeserving ones, and can surely do the same for those seeking relief from student-loan debt.

Above all, we cannot continue to fund the beast that is American “higher education,” which is unjustly enriching itself while impoverishing and culturally poisoning our young people even as it leaves them ignorant. Forget “defund the police.” Defund the colleges.

Teresa R. Manning is Policy Director at the National Association of Scholars, Vice President of the Virginia Association of Scholars and a former law professor at Scalia Law School, George Mason University.