Reflections on teaching about student debt…

This semester, I have a unique opportunity to teach my own course on Student Loans, Other Debt, and the U.S. Economy. As a 100-level course, there are no pre-requisites, and as a special topics course, it is not a pre-requisite for any other course. Instead, it is a course open to all majors and levels, that weaves a thread about debt to understand different aspects of the economy, especially inequality and instability. We do so through four units: student debt, mortgage debt and the 2008 crisis, corporate debt, and government debt, with student debt being the largest unit.In Class Causes of Student Debt

In teaching on student debt so far, I have made some surprising observations about where students are at in terms of understanding the development of student debt, its impacts, and what can be done about it.

  • in the first weeks of course, many shared personal concerns about debt, especially those that either have debt or have had friends/family take on student debt
  • a general sense of fear and anxiety associated with student debt
  • naïvité in understanding student indebtedness as a very *new* norm in American society
  • a tendency to view debt as playing a role in getting a “return on investment” in education
  • some express doubt about education or a degree actually being meaningful in the economy
  • viewing debt as a matter of “responsibility” and desiring “financial literacy”, a tendency to internalize student debt as a matter of “poor decision making”
  • they want to learn how to be “smart” with their money
  • some think colleges are profiting off of debt
  • most chose UMass in part due to concerns about debt
  • some international students express confusion about the American system of higher education financing

What I find most interesting is how deeply the rhetoric of personal finance in ingrained in many students- even those who lived through the 2008 crisis.