Senate’s Student Loan Deal: Is College For Enlightenment Or Skills?

As Senate passes its student loan deal, which is better than student loan rates doubling but much worse than current student loan rates, I wonder if college is for enlightenment or for practical skills. I believe it should be for both but I think many people see a false dichotomy and think they have to choose.

The Huffington Post reports, “Democrats won a protection for students that rates would never climb higher than 8.25 percent for undergraduate students. Graduate students would not pay rates higher than 9.5 percent and parents’ rates would top out at 10.5 percent.”

These are the highest loans can ever be, in the immediate, this fall, undergraduate students will pay 3.85%, graduates 5.4% and parents 6.8% percent, a small but notable increase. Democratic Senator of Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren has called the government on its morality, suggesting that the $1.2 trillion national student loan debt is devouring Americans, while the Obama Administration and Department of Education make a profit.

Warren said, “Instead of helping our students, the government is making a profit on student loans. That is wrong. It is morally wrong. That is obscene. The government should not be making profits off the backs of our students.”

According to the CBO and the Department of Education budget documents the government has made $120 billion off student loans over the past 5 years and by 2023 it is estimated that, between then and now, they will make another $184 billion.

This is why I pose the question: is college for enlightenment or skills? My professors longed for the days of olden university, “Back then it wasn’t about grades. You’d choose a mentor, you’d read books and discuss them and when you and your mentor decided you had learned enough, you would move onto the next thing,” they would say. My professors, and myself, were more interested in learning how to think critically about the world around us, which is a skill in itself but not a tangible one. Those who cannot contextualize history, events, and problems can’t fully understand them and thus can’t reconcile them. I went to college to learn how to think with the hope that this would help me forge a path that could lead to a job.

There are many who are dismissive of this kind of rationalization because it is perceived as fiscally irresponsible. I would argue that the fiscal irresponsibility is at the fault of private institutions and the government who have turned colleges into business sectors instead of places where those of different classes, colors and creeds obtain access to the same opportunities.

Education is a right, not a privilege but the United States has done its best to make it exclusive to those who can afford it. However, should we relate to the world the way we want it to be, a place where we are allowed to follow our passions and profit off of them because they are valued, or as it is, a place increasingly competitive with a lot less jobs?

I can’t answer that with any kind of certainty. What I can say is that money will solve a lot of your problems and it was naive to think that I didn’t “need” it to be happy. But I was seventeen years old and told to decide what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life without guidance from my parents or school, so there you go. However, a job that is practical and that you resent doing isn’t the key to happiness either. The people I know who are really good at things but don’t enjoy doing them are essentially very unhappy. We spend most of our waking life at work, so it needs to be something that brings positivity and not stress into our lives.

Writing, communication and social theory, the things I studied, aren’t exactly perceived as hard skills, so I found ways to add hard skills to the things I loved. I learned Photoshop, basic CSS, WordPress—things that would give me an edge over competitors because they were the things online editors had to use on a daily basis. I worked on campus and had five internships during college so that I had “real world” experience and office skills.

I guess the way I justified my choice for enlightenment and passion was to work really hard at finding environments where I could practice those things while having a hands on experience. No matter what you study in college, you miss out on what you chose not to study. If I could go back to college and learn a million different things and have a million different jobs throughout my life I would do that. But I can’t afford to do that and many can’t afford to do even one thing.

If you can translate your passion into a hard skill then that’s probably going to be the best path. Art = graphic design. Writing = publications. Science = research/pharmaceuticals/physicians. However, I do long for the experience where I could spend time with someone much older and much wiser and just sit down and discuss what things mean, instead of constantly trying to figure out how I can “sell” what I do.

The Senate’s student loan deal reflects one thing for sure, whether for enlightenment or practical skills, college is a for-profit business and much like any other business there is little concern for the consumer.

So why did you go to college? Enlightenment? Practical skills? Or both?

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