Student Debt and Social Justice

Tessa Carter

Commencement season is upon us, and so is the season of big dreams about changing the world—and of deep breaths over the impending doom of loan payback time. The clock has begun to tick, and the day draws nigh when regular payments must be met—or else.

There’s no question that the economics of American higher education is a bona fide mess. Even apart from the debate over whether college pays and whether those four—or six—years of classroom commitment were worth it, student debt is a daunting reality that can become a crushing burden.

It should come as no surprise that students have to make significant sacrifices in dealing with debt, and often students who have borrowed the most will earn the least. Student debt, combined with a tough job market, has become a crisis. Some have called it the next fiscal cliff, and some have gone further and placed student debt under the ever-widening umbrella of social justice. This week hosted a forum on social justice and higher education.

But is the student debt crisis really a matter of social justice? When students (willingly) borrow for college and then struggle to pay back loans plus interest in the midst of a falling job market—is such a thing unjust?

First we must be clear about what justice means. Classically understood, justice is one of the four cardinal virtues, along with wisdom, prudence, and temperance. Contra Rawls, justice is not mere fairness: it is, as Aquinas wrote, “a certain rectitude of mind, whereby a man does what he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him.” The moral goodness of an action determines whether it is just.

Social justice, then, is a virtue, albeit one with myriad competing meanings. But the adjectival addition does indicate a communal effort directed toward the common good, of the sort articulated in the papal encyclical Centesimus Annus.

Usually when people call for social justice, however, “the system” is blamed and the state, rather than a community of persons, must make amends. But social justice as a virtue must be practiced by persons. An intrinsically impersonal system cannot be just, wise, or prudent, and any top-down action by a naturally coercive institution like the state is a long way from the naturally grassroots practice of virtue. Much more powerful and effective are communities, churches, and families supporting each other instead of demanding that the state fix whatever ills life throws at us.

As the economist Friedrich Hayek wrote,

It is one of the greatest weaknesses of our time that we lack the patience and faith to build up voluntary organizations for purposes which we value highly, and immediately ask the government to bring about by coercion (or with means raised by coercion) anything that appears as desirable to large numbers. Yet nothing can have a more deadening effect on real participation by the citizens than if government, instead of merely providing the essential framework of spontaneous growth, becomes monolithic and takes charge of the provision for all needs, which can be provided for only by the common effort of many.

Everyday virtue that thrives in community is the true home of social justice. State reforms can be only secondary, and coerced conformism to any hardline ideology has no place at all.

It is true that many students do not understand the full import of taking out loans, and thus increased loan-awareness is a worthy goal to pursue. But the hard truth is that no one can foresee the future job market, and the state cannot guarantee high-wage jobs for borrowers.

Four years ago, I was determined to get through college entirely debt-free. I was willing to do whatever it took—CLEP exams, accelerated distance classes, part-time coursework, home commute—to avoid the encumbrance of student loans. Since full-ride scholarships were in scarce supply at the colleges I most preferred, I was ready to grit my teeth and plow through the course map of a university whose chief advantage was its geographical propinquity.

That was before I visited a college in New York City whose educational offerings finally convinced me that loans (for this particular school) just might be worth the gamble.

Two weeks ago, I graduated from that same college, immeasurably blessed by the people I have lived and learned alongside for the past three years. Through the support of family and friends and earnings from various jobs, I’ve been able to pull through times of financial stress.

The biggest challenge yet remains. It will soon be time for me to pay up on my end of the deal—and I’ll need all the wisdom, prudence, and temperance I can muster. Paying back the loans I willingly took out is simply the right—and just—thing to do.

Sure, I’ll need to make serious sacrifices, and I can’t tell where the economy will be in six months. But then that’s what I bargained for. I am no victim. I’m still immensely blessed. I have a solid community around me, and I’m ready to do the hard work ahead of me.

Student debt is a heavy burden, and managing it calls for a lot of responsibility and hard work. But calling it unjust seems at best to trivialize the situations of those who truly suffer from gross injustice.

National student debt may be an economic crisis, but it is not therefore unjust.

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