Our Paradoxical Future

Expensive education may dampen Obama’s ambitions for healthcare and education

One seldom-mentioned aspect of efforts to provide all Americans with better educational opportunities, or to offer health insurance to everyone, is that these endeavors will require more staff. There will need to be more teachers to teach students and to train educators; more nurses, more laboratory technicians, more doctors to treat patients. In sum, more people will need to be educated in order to satisfy the increased demand that will accompany improved access.

That’s good news for those Americans who need jobs. But in order to get those jobs, workers need to be trained and accredited. And that education costs money. Unlike business and private law careers in which handsome salaries help to defray the costs of the degrees, jobs in education and medicine aren’t nearly as lucrative. Which is why states around the country offer loan-forgiveness programs to lure lawyers into public service work, or teachers into public schools, and so forth. But, in the face of the financial crisis, some states are cutting those programs, leaving recent grads stranded with huge loans and tiny salaries that don’t add up at the end of the month.

That’s the complex and nuanced problem The New York Times captured in Saturday’s Your Money column. A muscular reporting effort with a four-person byline, the Times asked why students might pursue careers that would jeopardize their financial well-being:

And if the forgiveness isn’t guaranteed, how on earth can anyone expect 18- or 22-year-olds to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt?

Without such a promise, how can they know that they won’t one day find themselves in a police uniform or in a rural doctor’s office suddenly facing personal bankruptcy?

While federal forgiveness programs are intact, “many states say that financing their loan forgiveness programs depends on state budgets. Given declining tax revenues, that doesn’t inspire much confidence.”

What’s more, the Times brings a sharp critical eye to the irony of the current economic landscape:

College graduates from years ago who chose banking over teaching or nursing have now made such a big mess of the economy that the teachers who educate the bankers’ children have to worry about the status of the loans they took out to learn to teach. Pretty rich, no?

The writers defended teachers and others against criticisms that those pursuing low-paying jobs should avoid assuming debt:

if education is a fundamental right, then it’s hard to argue against public policies that try to make sure there are enough teachers to provide that education. And if loan forgiveness is what it takes to get teachers to head to rural schoolhouses or poor urban schools, then that would certainly seem to serve the national interest.

So loan forgiveness programs are not some sinister form of social engineering. Nor do they encourage overindebtedness, per se. Education costs what it costs, and if you need to borrow to attend and intend to eat while doing so, then borrow you must. In fact, borrowing to prepare for a career in nursing or law enforcement makes perfect sense if governmental entities are promoting loan forgiveness programs.

This is solid stuff, asking serious and thoughtful questions not just about how the economic crisis will come to be solved, but—more importantly—what kind of society America can become once the storm passes.

For now, the Times is engaging in a bit of crowdsourcing by asking readers to help compile a database about whether states and lenders will guarantee their loan-forgiveness programs for the future. And they’re encouraging readers to call their state representatives and voice support for such programs.

Student borrowers are among many groups whose position in the economy can be made more precarious at the hands of legislators. Kudos to the Times for plainly explaining the connections between policies and people, and empowering readers to advocate for real changes in their communities.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.