Student Loans: The New Debt Peonage


David Jaffee
David Jaffee

A letter to the Editor

By David Jaffee

Today, most people believe that we live in a modern enlightened society that is superior in every way to societies of the past. In this narrative, the forces of human progress have moved us inevitably from oppressive feudal relations that limited freedom and opportunities to a benevolent capitalism that allows for human liberation from bonds of servitude. But the self-congratulatory celebration may be premature. It is based on the assumption that the corporate elite and dominant classes of contemporary capitalism are somehow less rapacious and predatory than the feudal lords of the past. This would be a mistake.

Today, the financial oligarchy has a stranglehold over our political and economic system. The latest victims are college students. A new form of debt peonage is spreading across the land. It is driven by student loans and it follows a familiar script found in earlier forms of servitude. Students are promised that a four-year university credential will guarantee employment, material success, and economic security. But in order to receive these benefits one must pay a price. As the cost of a college degree rises, increasing numbers take out private student loans as an investment in their human capital.

But the promise is illusory. Jobs are scarce. Those that are available pay low wages. With debt payments hanging over their head, graduates are forced to take jobs they would normally forego for the hope of better prospects elsewhere. Tying students to jobs in order to work off their debt is a potent form of social control, as effective today as it was in the bad old days of entrapment and debt bondage.

Even those who can find semi-decent paying jobs discover that a large chunk of their income is consumed by student loan debt payments. Chances of qualifying for a home mortgage under such debt conditions are slim to none. Thus, discretionary spending is curtailed, material comfort postponed.

The latest figures are staggering. Student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt. Thirty-seven million Americans owe close to $1 trillion in student loan payments.

While the financial sector may benefit from this arrangement, it puts an enormous drag on the national economy that depends on college graduates to purchase new homes and fill them with appliances and furniture. Instead, record numbers are joining the ranks of the “boomerang children” who return home to live with their parents until they can establish financial stability, which is increasingly remote.

As we sociologists like to say — student debt is not a personal problem, it is a social problem; it will require an organized social movement and some radical social policy to solve this growing national tragedy.

David Jaffee

Professor of Sociology