The million dollar degree?

This post was inspired by this post on Crooked Timber, which was in turn inspired by David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

If somebody asked you to put a price on your upbringing, how much would say it’s worth? A hundred thousand dollars? A million? I had a great childhood, I don’t think it would be possible to say how much I owe my parents in monetary terms. That is, my “debt” to my parents is infinite. And I imagine it’s probably the same for anyone that had a good upbringing. My education, my sense of morality, my identity, and the tools that I have to survive in this cruel world are all to a large extent owed to my parents.

Throughout human history, perhaps the most important duty parents had was to provide their children with the tools to understand and survive the world they live in. That is, the tools to become independent adults one day, and to bring bread to their table through their own efforts. After societies developed to the point that our economies had a “division of labor”, this included teaching children a craft, and kids were often apprenticed to their own parents; which is why even today many last names derive from various occupations: think ‘Smith’, ‘Baker’, ‘Carpenter’, ‘Mason’, etc.

In the past two hundred years or so, human societies have acquired such size and complexity that this method of educating children is no longer practical. There is so much that we need to know to make a living in the modern world that educating children has become a full-time job–sure, my dad did teach me how to read and write, but he could have never taught me how to become a lawyer, doctor, or accountant. This is why we have schools and universities, to give us the tools that our parents can no longer give us.

This process shows no signs of stopping. Many jobs that fifty years ago may have required just a high school diploma now require a master’s degree. But there is one thing that hasn’t changed: the value of acquiring an education–the tools to understand the world and to make a living–is still infinite. You can try to put a price on it if you want, but this price will never cover the true value of an education; much like no price could ever cover the true value of a good upbringing.

This is also why in many countries, education up to the college level or even up to PhDs is paid for by the state. Even here in the United States, all pre-college education paid for by the government, and not long ago college degrees at public universities were practically free. The value of an education is too high to put a price tag on it, and to limit it to those who can pay for it.

So what happens when you try to price a college degree? Once students’ pockets become a conceivable source of funding, it turns out you can increase the price of tuition indefinitely, and still find people that would be willing to pay for it. President Schapiro says “we’re going to get up to $100,000 tuition before too long, probably 14 years”, and it will still be a good investment to potential students. And he’s right, because independently of what the cost of providing an education is, its value is always infinite. Universities can continue raising tuition fees all they want, because students will be willing to go into any amount of debt in order to pay for it. According to the Project on Student Debt, almost half of Northwestern students graduate with some amount of debt, and the average NU senior graduates with almost $20,000 of debt. Nationally, student loan debt tops a trillion dollars (that’s more than credit card debt), and shows no sign of slowing down.

This is the natural result of trying to price the priceless. The problem is, even if the value of education is infinite, the amount of money we have to pay for it is quite finite. Making students pay for their education is equivalent to making children pay for their upbringings, it would take a lifetime to pay for it. When forced to pay for the infinite, the student ends up being force to give up the only thing they have which is priceless: their freedom. Students become indentured servants to the holders of their debt, and have to work their whole lives to pay them off.

But unlike other forms of slavery, the problem with debt slavery is that it’s not based on the kind of patriarchal cultural norms that make the situation seem “right” or “natural” to the slaves. As Graeber argues, debt slavery is unsustainable precisely because it is an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable, to put a price tag on social hierarchy. “Debt peonage, it would appear, is far more likely to inspire outrage and collective action than is a system premised on pure inequality”, he tells us. The current system inevitably leads to social instability because, no matter how good their education is, students will never accept to become enslaved to pay for it. American students everywhere are rising up and occupying their schools to protect not only their right to an education, but also their freedom.