UBC professor Christopher Martin explores the impact of rising student debt
As graduates prepare to enter the next stage of their lives, for some, employment, for others, more school, many are feeling the stress of making a decision for one of life’s most fundamental questions, how am I going to make a living?
Christopher Martin, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education argues that educational debt is unjust because students’ choices are limited by the obligation to pay back student loans they’ve acquired while in school.
“Borrowing”, says Martin, “puts a financial strain on students so that they feel pressures to study subjects that may lead to well-paid jobs.”
We sat down with Chris to discuss the impact of student debt on graduating students.
Chris’ work was published in IMPACT: Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy
Q: Could you give us a brief background on your focus on student debt?
CM: I look at the issue of student debt in order to explore a much larger, but really important question, one that needs to be addressed before we even begin to crack the debt problem: what exactly is the value, point or purpose of a higher education? So, as a philosopher I’m interested in the possible value that a higher education should have for both the individual’s attending and the community at large. Then I look to see if student debt helps or hinders that value. For example, if you think the basic function of a higher education is simply to increase a person’s earning potential it might make total sense to ask students to pay or borrow in order to attend because the benefits of attending go right to the individual student. Of course, I don’t agree with that argument and that’s kind of my starting point for understanding student debt. In short my question is: what role should higher education have in a democracy and, given that role, is it just to require students to pay or borrow in order to attend?
Q: Why do you believe that student debt limits student choice while in school?
CM: We spend a lot of time thinking about education and employability. But my argument is that economic wellbeing isn’t the whole story. Our educational choices also reflect the specific kinds of role we want to play as citizens. Or perhaps we want to broaden our own horizons in some way. And so if you accept this account of the value of higher education, you can sort of see how student debt becomes a problem. For many people, studying a subject is not currently a choosable option because they are forced to think about higher education in purely economic terms because they have to be very mindful of the debt-repayments they’ll have to start making on graduation. So, I see student debt as not just being bad for, but incompatible with the aim and purpose of a higher education in a democracy.
Q: Why do you believe that having to borrow is unjust?
CM: Well, educational debt isn’t just inconvenient for those who have to borrow. It’s a form of inequality that runs deeper than the pain of having to make repayments. It is unjust because students who are well off don’t face the same kinds of constraints around their educational choices, and they don’t have to worry about making debt repayments on the other side. So my thinking is that as student debt levels rise we’re beginning to see a system where the well off get to access higher education for the purpose it should serve, which is to help adult learners live well-rounded and flourishing lives as they see it, on the one hand, and less well-off students are compelled to choose programs of study that are thought to be more likely lead to employability. In a democratic society people’s freedom to develop their interests and talents shouldn’t depend on how much wealth they have.
Q: What do you propose should be done about the student debt problem?
CM: Ideally, I think we should be committing greater public funding to higher education. But this funding should not just go to students that are already planning on attending. The state should be offering free higher education to all citizens. Free higher education or all is doable, it’s just a question of whether or not we value it enough as a democratic society.
But we should also be offering greater diversity in terms of the kinds of programming options on offer to citizens from different walks of life. So, one of the conclusions I make is that the idea higher education needs to be really opened up. Right now, we cater to certain kind of citizens with certain kinds of interest and aspirations. But if we want higher education to be free it needs to be open to all.
That’s the long-term goal, I think. In the short term, however, we really should be making sure that students from less well off backgrounds can attend for free. And I’m pleased to see that we are seeing shifts in this direction in Ontario and New Brunswick, though I’m aware there is some debate in terms of how that’s being implemented. Ultimately, though, we really need to be having a much more sustained and serious conversation about the role of higher education in a democracy. We seem to understand that, say, basic schooling and health care are fundamental to a well-functioning democracy, but conversations about higher educations seem mired in economic debates over how best to marketize the higher education system. I think more and more people working in higher education appreciate that marketization isn’t serving students well, but we need to do a better job of getting that message out to the public. Linking debate about the value of higher education to the student debt problem is one way to do that, because the two issues are inseparably linked.