Academic Freedom or Educational Malpractice?

It is time for NYU to take action to silence Andrew Ross.  His encouragement of students to default on their loans is irresponsible and reckless—an act of educational malpractice I would argue—and something that should not be tolerated from anyone on the staff of an institution of higher education.  Academic freedom does not give Dr. Ross the right to knowingly advise students to do something that will harm them for years to come, and that violates a legal contract between the borrower and ultimately the federal government.  Does he also suggest that they steal and evade taxes?

Dr. Ross doesn’t seem to understand that defaulting on a student loan does not eliminate the obligation to pay, but instead simply increases the amount an individual will owe.  Times are tough, and new graduates today are suffering perhaps more than ever before, but bad credit will only make things worse for them in the long run.

There are debt-management and repayment programs available to borrowers to help them get through tough times and still maintain good credit.  Admittedly, delaying or extending repayment will cost borrowers more, so these options should not be viewed as permanent solutions.  I agree with Dr. Ross that interest-rate adjustments would be helpful so that low-income students don’t end up paying twice as much for their education just because it takes them longer to repay.

Rest assured that regardless of whether one person defaults or one million people default on their student loans, the federal government is fully capable of taking action against each and every delinquent borrower in order to recoup not only the loan principal, but all of the interest, penalties, and fees that are due.  After all, the interest payments borrowers are making on the loans originated or purchased by the federal government go to support a variety of other government programs, including the Pell grant program.  Dr. Ross’s directive to the Occupiers to walk away from their loan obligations could result in further reductions in the Pell grant program, which means that future students will need to borrow even more than did the angry Occupiers.

The idea that the 1 percent will pay all the bills is naïve and unrealistic, and by the way, there are plenty of 1-percenters who got there by taking student loans and working hard to repay them, even when it was hard and they weren’t yet in the 1 percent.

If Dr. Ross wants to refuse to accept the portion of his pay that comes from borrowed tuition dollars, that’s great. If he wants to donate all of the proceeds from his new book to a student-loan repayment fund, even better.  If he wants to stand in front of NYU and shout at the top of his lungs that prospective students should run as fast as they can to a public university that offers an equal education for less than half the price … that’s fine.  And if he wants to make sure that young people fully understand the price they will pay for all of those services and amenities they seem to demand from their “top pick” school, then he is contributing to the public good.  But telling people to default on their loans is not.

Sadly, the systems in place for ranking, assessing, and even accrediting institutions favor those institutions that have a selective admissions policy, and the easiest way to increase institutional selectivity is by winning the facilities and amenities arms race.  For better or worse, dorms and fitness centers “speak” to prospective students—even the really smart ones—in a way that academic rigor or even superstar faculty simply don’t.  The students who don’t want to repay their loans now were probably happy a few years ago to brag to their high school friends about the fancy colleges they were going to attend and I’m sure they thoroughly enjoyed the amenities and opportunities for which they now think somebody else should pay.  Perhaps if they had taken classes like economics or engineering instead of the kind that Dr. Ross teaches, they might be better positioned to get a decent job.

I’d encourage Dr. Ross to apply his “cultural studies” expertise and earn his loan-financed salary by figuring out how to stop the institutional arms race, or how to encourage students to select a college based on the things that should matter, like educational programming and rigor, rather than dorms and playing fields.  The last thing we need is for some pampered academic to stand amongst angry and disillusioned Gen Y-ers to encourage them to be even more self-indulgent and even more reliant upon others to pay for the privileges and opportunities to which they believe they are entitled.

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