Chris Maisano on student debt

I am reading through the latest Jacobin release right now. In it, Chris Maisano has a piece on student debt titled “The Soul of Student Debt.” The basic gist of the piece is that charging for college forces students to make economic calculations about their degree and future career. That is, students have to pick degree and career paths that will allow them to cover the cost of attending college. This, Maisano claims, forces them to think as capitalist investors do, and that is bad.

Maisano’s treatment is refreshing insofar as it does not make any class arguments. Lazier writers argue incorrectly that rising student debt is what’s driving the rich-poor education gap, and so Maisano should be praised for carving a different argumentative path. With that said, the path he does carve is less than persuasive. It is vacuously true that charging prices for things forces people to make economic calculations. That is just as true when the price is attached to a gallon of milk as it is when it is attached to college education. When you must pay for a good or service, you must ask yourself: is it worth it?

Maisano is very much against people having to confront that question when it comes to college (not clear what he thinks about milk prices). His argument as to why is, I think, undeveloped. He notes that prices are neoliberal and then mentions Foucault saying that neoliberalism seeks to subject the social life to the logic of the enterprise society. That involves altering people’s moral character and economic activity to make it more like a risk-taking entrepreneur. Student debt, it seems, is morally corrupting. I guess.

I don’t want to accuse Maisano of stereotypically hand-waving about neoliberalism, commodification, and alienation from the species-being, but he gets real close to it. Restating that prices force economic calculation in increasingly specialized language does not actually explain why it is bad. This is not to say it isn’t bad; it is just to say that this is not a great case for that proposition.

For college education especially, it is entirely understandable why people often imagine college education in economic calculation terms. The college wage premium is higher in the United States than any other OECD country. That is, as a society, we heap unbelievable amounts of cash on people who graduate college, with some exceptions of course. People regard and speak of college education as an investment because the economic fruits of acquiring it are so massive and beneficial to the private individual. That was true well before any of the student debt hysteria began. At best then, student debt and rising college costs change the economic calculation for college; they do not introduce economic calculating itself.

Maisano — and the literate left more generally — bizarrely fetishize college education and college students. It is understandable why: as their writing illustrates, college was a really important and meaningful experience for them. They enjoyed it; they are the academic sort. But that is not the typical student. When you read some of these people, you start to imagine that most college students are intrinsically interested in college. Have they forgotten what college is actually like?

There are college students like that, but they are few and far between. As far as I can tell, most students don’t even want to be there. They go to college purely for perceived economic advantage, and couldn’t care less about the learning part or democratic participation. They are doing what they need to do for a better job, nothing more. This mythical past where most students made college decisions without partaking in economic calculation almost certainly never existed, not in recent memory at least. The notion that student debt and college costs introduced economic calculation into the academy full of aspiring intellectuals is goofy. It was already there.