Unaffordable and Under Threat: Higher Education’s Debt Crises (and How to Fix Them)

Federal student lending creates two crises in higher education: a current crisis of affordability for students, and a looming crisis of increasing federal interference in the internal affairs of colleges and universities. Great Books colleges that opt out of federal funding offer a promising solution to both.

In recent debates about loan forgiveness, some claim that student debt unduly delays the achievement of life milestones, such as starting a family or buying a home. Others counter that alternative forms of debt are comparably restrictive, but nearly everyone recognizes the economic and moral absurdity of forgiveness of home and auto loans or credit card debt. Since students and their families borrow for education voluntarily, critics of loan forgiveness argue that they have the responsibility to pay up.

But calls for student loan forgiveness cannot be so glibly dismissed. The social and economic pressure to get a college degree, exerted on many millions of American students, imposes something close to a practical necessity. If you want economic security and social esteem, many young people are told, you must go to college. This necessity, some think, mitigates the personal responsibility students have for their debt.

But there are better reasons to oppose loan forgiveness. If successful, the logic used to justify student loan forgiveness now will pave the way for a significant increase in federal subsidy of higher education. On what grounds can someone support loan forgiveness for those currently indebted, but deny funding of those who will go to college in the future? This is, in fact, what many hope for: that the student loan crisis will be eliminated once and for all by the gallant munificence of the federal government.

Almost as worrisome, if loan forgiveness is enacted, we can expect to hear calls for educational reparations. If it is unjust and unwise to leave the class of 2020 mired in student debt, it is equally unjust to let the class of 2010 or 2000 continue to suffer the long-term costs of having paid off their loans. Failure to provide some benefit to past borrowers will be widely seen as simply unfair.

Most worrisome of all: as college graduates clamor to have their loan payments reimbursed, those who never went to college or do not plan to do so will seek an equivalent benefit. Not to grant it will be perceived as elitist oppression, but granting it will make the COVID era’s stimulus checks look like chump change. In short, student loan forgiveness would only temporarily address the affordability crisis, but probably generate a far greater crisis in the future.

Given these potential social and economic quagmires, maintaining the status quo might seem like the most prudent option. The problem, however, is that there is no status quo. The cost of education and the debt used to finance it continue to rise. How much debt can the education bubble take on before it bursts? If and when it does, thousands of universities and millions of students will demand and expect a bailout, and hardly any will be deemed too big to fail.

There is no easy fix to the student loan crisis, because crushing student debt is a consequence of a deeper problem: the cheap and easy credit obtained by taking out federal student loans incentivizes colleges and universities to raise prices. These institutions compete for students and their dollars by adding non-educational amenities and services, turning some large and wealthy campuses into self-sufficient towns or all-inclusive resorts. These extras drive up costs all the more, the government responds by raising caps on the amount students can borrow, and the vicious cycle continues, on the backs of student borrowers and their co-signing families.

The Threat of Government Control  

But affordability is not the only crisis caused by federally funded student loans. Federal educational financing gives the government a say in how colleges and universities conduct their own affairs. Already these institutions are bloated by a class of staff and administrators responsible for ensuring compliance with government regulation. But the deeper concern is that the federal government’s financial stake in higher education gives it sufficient leverage to exert control more directly over curriculum, hiring, admissions, and many other aspects of campus life.

Conservative religious colleges and universities have long been sensitive to this sort of government interference. It is probably only a matter of time before such institutions face an ultimatum between opting out of federal financial aid and compromising on issues constitutive of institutional identity, such as behavioral standards consistent with traditional sexual morality. Religious exemptions abound in anti-discrimination legislation and jurisprudence, but recent rulings in favor of progressive views of marriage and gender identity (Obergefell and Bostock, respectively) foretell eventual defeat for religious institutions that adhere dogmatically to traditional views in these matters. Sadly, the ultimatum will mean doom for many: to forgo the revenue on which they have become dependent, or cease to be the distinctive institutions they were founded to be.


But the Trump administration’s opposition to critical race and gender theories, and the ongoing cultural and political fallout of this opposition, have given secular and progressive institutions similar cause for worry. Common progressive views such as that to be white is to be racist, or that calling oneself a man is sufficient to be a man, are just as controversial as, say, the traditional Christian teaching that sex is to be reserved for marriage and that marriage is a union only between one man and one woman. If it is not hard to imagine a progressive administration penalizing institutions that make profession of these Christian views a condition for admission or employment, it is not that much harder to imagine some future traditionalist administration penalizing institutions that do the same to institutions promoting the progressive views.

The threat from the federal government’s current and increasing financial stake in higher education, therefore, is not a threat to religious or conservative institutions only, but to any institution that has an identity sufficiently distinctive to be an object of contempt to whoever may be in power.

In light of the crises of affordability and government interference, what should institutions do?

Those unable or unwilling to forgo revenue from federal funding can protect themselves against government intrusion by committing, or recommitting, to what many still regard as the true purpose of the university: to educate students and to produce and promote knowledge. It should be a bedrock commitment of such institutions not just to permit but to promote the free exchange of ideas supported by evidence and careful reasoning, while demanding civility and prohibiting intimidation or violence. It’s hard to persecute an institution for giving a platform to an idea you disfavor, when it is abundantly clear that it privileges no particular point of view. This is the ideal of the university the Academic Freedom Alliance exists to protect, and it’s an ideal in harmony with the longstanding American commitment to pluralism.

But while this approach may neutralize the threat of government interference, it does nothing to solve the affordability crisis, nor is it a real option for colleges and universities dedicated to a religious or ideological identity. Such institutions exist not just to educate and discover, but to form or train students to be practitioners and advocates of a distinctive worldview. These institutions (right or left, religious or secular) are exclusive by definition. They will continue to be under threat by a hostile federal government, as partisans of various ideologies rotate through the halls of power. These institutions should establish as quickly as possible a revenue model that secures their independence from the federal government. Many institutions will be unable to do this without drastic cuts, and some won’t survive. But if the past is a reliable guide, many of these institutions will opt for economic security, including the federal gravy train, at the expense of mission.

Great Books Colleges: A Promising Solution

But there is an alternative path. Some mission-oriented institutions have managed to keep the government out of their affairs by refusing federal financial aid altogether. These schools offer a workable solution to both sides of the debt crisis: simultaneously affordable and free of government intrusion.

Notably, they happen to share a commitment not only to affordability and intellectual independence from the federal government, but also to texts and ideas that have endured. This shared pedagogical focus on “Great Books” is no accident: a need to get back to the basics of education forces educators to take stock of what really ought to be taught rather than what is trending in the latest issues of academic journals. It is the real-world implementation of the old ice-breaker, “What books would you have on a desert island?” These schools answer: only the best and most important.


Of these schools, Hillsdale College is the wealthiest and most prominent, although most of them are neither wealthy nor prominent. They cannot charge as much as their federally funded counterparts, because their students cannot access the easy credit of federal student loans. As a consequence, they employ comparatively tiny administrative staffs, they serve small student bodies, and their campuses are streamlined. Some, such as Thomas Aquinas College (founded in Santa Paula, California, in 1971) and Christendom College (Front Royal, Virginia, 1977), have been around for half a century. But the movement skews young: New St. Andrews College (Moscow, Idaho, 1994), Wyoming Catholic College (Lander, 2005), New College Franklin (Franklin, Tennessee, 2009), St. Constantine College (Houston, 2016), and Sattler College (Boston, 2018).

There is good reason to predict this movement will flourish for the foreseeable future, as the gap in America between popular and traditional cultures widens. More and more families will seek out the affordable and pedagogically time-tested education these institutions have to offer. This demand will inspire others to establish similar institutions. For example, Hildegard College in Costa Mesa, California (at which I am a Visiting Professor) will welcome its first freshman class in Fall 2023, offering just one academic program: a Great Books major with a minor in Economics and Entrepreneurship.

My hope is that these lean and visionary start-ups will inspire established mission-committed colleges and universities to make the hard cuts necessary to preserve and enhance the liberal arts and (where applicable) religious identity, shrinking in size—as they will be forced to do anyway—but more fully realizing their mission.

The Role of Families and Students

But resolving the crises caused by federal financing of higher education is not a task for institutions alone. Families and students have a crucial role to play, too.

First, college is not for everyone. It should not be a family crisis if a son or daughter decides not to go to college. The importance of trades and the intrinsic and instrumental values of skilled labor should be emphasized in family life. The more we collectively value this labor, the more young people will be interested in careers that do not require a college degree. And trade school and apprenticeships are far more affordable than baccalaureate degrees.

Second, count the cost. Many student borrowers spend decades paying off student loans. In most of the professions, salaries are high enough to justify the expensive loans. For other jobs they are not. Colleges with a good brand or some prestige are attractive, especially to young people, since they provide an instantly recognizable status-marker. But this isn’t very important. In many families, students should be encouraged to opt for the less flashy but more affordable option.

Third and finally, when considering a school to attend, a prospective student should have good answers to questions like these: “What will I learn here? What sort of person am I likely to become by fulfilling this school’s requirements for a degree? Do I want to be that sort of person?” The truth is that many colleges and universities are visionless: “You can be and do whatever you want,” as the websites say.

For students seeking to navigate higher education’s two crises of affordability and government interference in academic freedom, the best approach is to find a college you trust to educate you as you want and need to be educated, with the goal of helping you become the person you aspire to be. You might just find, at the end of the search, that the mission-oriented start-ups are the way to go.

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