A bankruptcy court tells a gloomy story of student loans. Upon graduating from a school of dentistry in Wisconsin, Soler accumulated student loans in the amount of $200,000. Since then, repaying loans has been the primary predicament of Soler’s life. Soler has searched for higher paying jobs, worked with chronic back pain exasperated by her work as a dentist, and lived without many comforts cinematographed in the American dream of good life. After paying loan payments for eight years, a whopping $100,000 in total, Soler still owes $285,000. “With the accruing, compounding interest, in an effort reminiscent of Sisyphus, instead of gaining any ground with her mountain of loan debt, Soler has been going backwards.” A defeated Soler files for bankruptcy. See In re Soler, 261 BR 444 – Bankr. Court, Minnesota 2001.
Soler’s story is anything but unique or unusual. It’s writ large across America. It highlights the existential consequences of massive debt with which various professionals, physicians, engineers, accountants, journalists, lawyers, and many others, graduate from occupational schools. The rising debt serfdom in epistemic occupations is similar to raw indentured labor in American colonies. Money merchants, including the federal government acting as one, entice potential borrowers by lending first and demanding indentured services later. Lending thrives and money merchants flourish when tuitions are skyrocketing and professional schools, including law and medicine, are raising the cost of studies by the year. Upon graduation, students holding professional degrees must pay their huge debts. If a student fails to complete professional studies due to illness, family tragedy, or any other misfortune, loans must still be paid. Bankruptcy is no longer an option since money merchants have acquired federal legislation to shut tight the bankruptcy escape door.
The scale of professional indebtedness is mind-boggling. Take law schools. According to one survey, in 2014, the average indebtedness at more than 100 law schools was well over $100,000. At one law school, the average debt was more than $170,000 for 91% of students attending the school. At Columbia and Georgetown Law Schools, the average debt was above $150,000. At Berkeley, a state-supported law school, the average debt for 78% of law students was over $140,000. Add to this the debt law students take for four years of college studies, a prerequisite for entering law schools. According to the White House, average college debt is $23,000. So a law graduate, bearing a total debt of $150,000 at 5.25% interest rate will pay a total of $242, 584 over a period of 20 years in monthly installments of over $1,000. Many law graduates owe well over $200,000 in debt, the payment of which will require a life time. Most lawyers will be in their fifties before the entire loan is paid off.
In addition to student loans, most professionals gather debt in the form of home mortgage, car loans, and credit card loans — the four debts most professionals are likely to carry. This means that hundreds of thousands indebted professionals must work and continue to work just to pay off debt, as did Soler, and as did indentured servants when American colonies were established for the benefit of money merchants, venture capitalists, and slave traders.
Despite nauseating rhetoric that the opportunity of education is available to all hardworking Americans, debt numbers tell a heartrending story. Professional education is an invitation to a life of debt (stress and worries) that swells with compounded interest and additional debt obligations. When education was affordable, families could imagine a better future for their children. Money merchants have subverted the promised dreams of the twentieth century America. Now, only affluent families can afford to send their children to professional schools with the confidence that they would graduate as debt-free men and debt-free women. Everyone else must sign a contract of indentured service. Money merchants are equal opportunity lenders. The doors of debt-laced education are open to all future professionals without discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, and any other barrier that law has abolished. This is indeed an expansion of lending markets.
Notwithstanding a wide open market of student loans, a grand irony prowls in broad daylight. Poor households cannot even imagine running a debt of $200,000 for their children’s education. Consequently, high debts associated with professional studies compel sons and daughters of poor and even middle class families to think small and imagine cashing checks as tellers, processing words, scanning groceries, fixing leaks in houses, collecting refuse, and seeking other jobs that avoid debt-ridden education. According to census bureau statistics, more than 32 million families in America live below the poverty level. Nearly 15 million families below the poverty level have children under age 18. These families comprised of white, black, and other racial groups are doomed to lick the bottom of the pyramid. Under disabling poverty, their sons and daughters may not even graduate from high school.
Upon graduation, the joy is short-lived. Urgency of loan repayment limits choices. Getting a job becomes more pressing than getting a job of choice. Underemployment replaces full employment. Urgency justifies low wages –whatever you can get. Keeping a job, particularly if it is paying the loans, becomes more valuable than anything else in life. Spouse, young children, and aging parents are demoted to lower priorities. In some cases, even personal health may be compromised by working late hours and weekends. In some cases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression, the uninvited demons, occupy professional corpuses. Lingering loans scar the minds and bodies of indentured professionals.
In binding professionals to debt, the system also suffers. Because of fear of losing the job, the courage to call out the wrongs, the injustices, the excesses, and corruption in corporations, banks, hospitals, law firms, law schools, judiciary, legislature, and the executive, wherever the professionals serve, fades into caution, cowardice, and compromise. “Don’t rock the boat” becomes the secret mantra of survival and self-suppression. (The mantra actually means keep paying the loans.) Consequently, wrong policies, flawed decisions, and misdirection conceived in the politburos of organizations, corporations, and state and federal governments, lead to losses. The urge of quitting a disagreeable job, though authentic, seems irrational because of the debt hanging over the head. Indentured professionals, in T.S. Elliot’s divinatory words, are reduced to “dried voices” of hollow men (and women).
L. Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy and a professor of law at Washburn University, Kansas.