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Tackling Student Debt

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The debt students take to pay for college is creating a crisis of citizenship, a Siena College professor posited at a well-attended Writing Seminar talk on March 31. The professor, Laurie Naranch, holds that if debt prevents students from being full-fledged participants in a democracy, then growing debt is not only a personal problem for the indebted (although it certainly is that), it is also a problem for politics and society as a whole. 

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Using Rousseau as a model for civic engagement, Naranch showed how debt hinders students’ interest and capacity to take part in politics. The more one owes, the greater the pressure to focus on developing a career at the cost of keeping up to date with current events and participating in democratic processes. Debt also adds pressure to think entrepreneurially, and on that score, Naranch warned, “if we think of students only as entrepreneurs, we risk ignoring their diminished possibilities as citizens.” Citizens actively take part in democratic governance, but if economic pressures prevent active participation by all, then citizenship becomes less democratic the more participation becomes the prerogative of those without debt. Afterward I talked to some of  the students who attended, and two of them, violist Stephanie Gallipeau and vocalist Hannah McDermott, said that while their sizable personal debt didn’t influence their politics, Naranch’s talk helped clarify why that might be the case for others.

While other scholars have also stressed the problem of student indebtedness, two further ideas make Naranch’s argument unique. First, she explained how a slew of numbers and scores become the new basis of the indebted’s subjectivity: instead of being flesh and blood, the student feels like s/he is becoming credit scores and limits, loan principals, and monthly payments. This terrifying thought leads to the second strand of Naranch’s thesis: how that horror imbues the discourse on debt. News reports focus on the hobbling power of debt burdens and people who are in debt internalize the shame of being in hock. And since the subject of debt is rarely brought up in polite company, silence makes working toward a solution rather difficult. 

Naranch has been working to challenge that silence with her research, which she has been presenting to select audiences. Instead of feeling ashamed of drowning in debt, she suggested that students open up a conversation rooted in an honest appraisal of debt’s affective dimensions. After the Juilliard talk, a handful of students did just that. One student gasped, “Oh God, that’s me!” when Naranch showed a photo of a sign with five digits of debt—but that gasp of horror turned into a productive conversation about the serious challenges and limits students face when going into debt to fund their education. Since the average U.S. college student has more than $23,000 in debt, Naranch’s research and her public presentation of it is a valuable step in confronting a serious problem.

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