Kingdom Ethics: The Predatory Nature of Student Loans

by John Ellis

Empathy is in short supply. As is the understanding of how profoundly image bearers were created to exist in community with and for each other in service to God. That lack of understanding blinds us to the ethics that derive from that ontic reality. Flourishing is found in Christ, but because of sin it is ultimately eschatological. Image bearers in heaven and on earth long for our final entrance into the full Rest of God in the New Jerusalem/New Earth. But in the here and now, while we wait, followers of King Jesus have the privilege of being faithful witnesses to the Resurrection by living in ways that reveal who God is to unbelievers. Our ethics are to bring God glory by reflecting His character. We do so imperfectly, of course. To our great discredit, we often steer back into the Fall in order to serve ourselves for our own glory. This is reflected in how our collective deficits in areas like empathy, understanding what it means to be made in God’s image, and an embrace of man-made ethics have combined to craft a view of flourishing that reduces it to a zero-sum game.

Over the last two days, a self-serving mindset that will not countenance the concept of the public good has been on full display. White evangelicalism has adopted wholesale the ideas of the autonomous individual within the polis as well as elevating to place of undeserved importance within their political theology John Locke’s primary and unwavering reverence for private property even at the expense of other image bearers. Why should I pay more taxes even if it helps someone else? That’s my money and I am the only one who should be allowed to decide how I spend it. It would be wonderful if professing Christians embraced Jesus’ command to serve others even at the expense of ourselves. Setting discussions of the wisdom of specific policy aside, Christians should long and pray for the student loan system to be corrected, abuses addressed, and the oppressed to see relief, even if it costs us something.

Sociologist Louise Seamster likes to refer to the cancellation of student loans as “restorative harm reduction.” Look, to be clear, the field of economics is not just opaque, it’s been described as the softest of the soft sciences. Many people, though, quote their favorite economist as if he or she is infallible. I point out economics’ issues, shall I say, to acknowledge that I’m not qualified to comment on neither the economic benefits nor problems associated with Dr. Seamster’s proposals, but I do find her “restorative harm reduction” a principle that finds parallels with Kingdom ethics.

The student loan industry is predatory. It’s not an equal opportunity predator, to be sure. Not everyone who borrows money to attend college is as adversely affected as others. In fact, it serves some people well, but the existence of success stories does not negate the harm the system perpetuates. Situations vary and the moving target of variables makes comparing one person’s experience to another’s a game that comes with the danger of having empathy shorn from the perspective. Taking into account empathy and submitting to the command to love our neighbor, should, at the least, cause us to be circumspect about outright dismissing President Biden’s action to cancel some student loan debt. Seeking ways to redress the oppressive actions of a predatory industry is good and right; it’s seeking tangible ways in which we can love our neighbors and heal communities suffering under oppression. Whether there are better policies with which to enact restorative harm reduction is a discussion worth having. But we can’t have an honest discussion about that until we submit our own stories/definitions of flourishing in the here and now to Kingdom ethics that call us to serve the public good. However, I get that some readers will be skeptical of my claim that the student loan industry is predatory and oppressive. So, I’m going to tell a story.  

A little over a decade ago, I returned to college for the fourth time (don’t ask, that’s an unflattering story in and of itself). Having concluded that my career as a theatre artist was winding down, I set my sights on eventually earning a PhD in philosophy with the endgame of teaching at the university level. However, I faced a problem. During my first stint in college during the mid-nineties, my GPA was embarrassingly low owing to my “deliberately shoot myself in the own foot” refusal to engage academically. Apart from my theatre and speech classes, I frequently skipped class and studied/did my homework even less – as in, rarely. During my third attempt at college, academics were not the issue; my GPA was quite high (we can ignore my second, very brief time as a college student). Added together, my GPA was okay, but definitely not one that would cause reputable grad programs to ever look in my direction. I wanted a pristine GPA, so I started over.

Owing to where we lived at the time, the local community college was the best option for me to restart and reset my college career. While applying, I never mentioned that I had already gone to college and had taken all the core classes. I started completely over.

During my two years at that community college, I learned several things that troubled me about the system (many of those troubling things were confirmed by friends who were profs at that community college or other community colleges). For this article’s purpose, though, I’m going to focus on the aspect of student loans being predatory and the complicity of colleges in the system.

During my time there, observing and listening, I developed a taxonomy that divided community college students into four categories: 1. Students earning college credits while still in high school. 2. Students wanting to knock out their core classes as quickly and cheaply as possible before transferring to a four-year institution. 3. Students whose academic achievements (or lack thereof) left community college as their only college option. 4. Older students who enrolled in the hopes of being able to transition to a better paying job. Admittedly, this taxonomy is somewhat of an oversimplification, but truth does reside in the oversimplification

Group 3 contains those who legitimately want to rehabilitate their academic career, but it also includes those for whom college isn’t a realistic option. Of course, a Venn diagram of those two sub-groups would show overlap. In this article, I’m going to focus on those for whom college isn’t a legitimate option. And if we include group 4 in that Venn diagram, the percentage of those in group 4 for whom college isn’t a legitimate option is sizeable.

The phrase “All men are created equal” has been codified within our collective anthropology. But it’s not true. We are not created equal.

Across the political spectrum, that’s hard for many to swallow. The left resists hierarchies. The right has the felt need to defend meritocracy which depends on being created equal (having the same starting line). Egalitarianism is often our default, even though egalitarianism can look and feel vastly different depending on whom you’re talking to and what you’re talking about. And one hard truth is that not everyone has the requisite cognitive skills to succeed at college. That doesn’t lessen their value as an image bearer, and it doesn’t subtract any of the dignity and respect owed them because they are made in God’s image. But it does speak into how our pretended meritocracy creates unjust disparity.

There are two prongs to this unjust disparity, and while the two prongs aren’t compatible, I’m willing to bet that many of us hold both prongs depending on the conversation, or we at least know people who hold tightly to both prongs depending on the conversation. On one hand, we believe, because we’ve had it drilled into us, that a college education is available to anyone who tries hard enough. Society rewarding the college educated is simply a society that rewards hard work and determination. On the other hand, we’ve bought the lie that a career in the trades offers the same financial and existential rewards as careers that require a college degree.

With my attack on the “all men are created equal” platitude, I’ve already touched on the first prong. Furthermore, I believe that an honest assessment of ourselves and those around us reveal the falsity of the belief that we’re created equal. The second prong deserves a brief look before turning to the predatory nature of student loans.  

The second prong supports the inequities the first prong creates by allowing us to turn a blind eye to the reality that our society places a premium on a college education and rewards it accordingly. In the fullest integrated expression of the two prongs, it says, “Sure, if you work hard enough and apply yourself, you can go to college. But you don’t necessarily have to. Learn a trade. You can make as much if not more money as a plumber, for example.”

Except you can’t. Unless you own a thriving plumbing business, your earning’s ceiling is lower than most of the careers that require a college degree. Anecdotally, I’ve seen this. But I don’t need to rely on anecdotes since there’s actual data to back it up.

According to a report by US News and World Report, “Plumbers made a median salary of $56,330 in 2020. The best-paid 25 percent made $73,370 that year, while the lowest-paid 25 percent made $42,330.” By way of a quick comparison, thanks to Governor DeSantis, entry-level teachers in Florida now start at around $47,000 a year, up from around $37,000 a year prior to the raise. The median teacher salary in Florida is around $90k a year. The median income for plumbers in FL is $62k a year. Sadly and shamefully, the teaching profession is one of the worst paid careers that require a college education. However, when you compare the median salary for plumbers with the median salary for teachers, it’s readily apparent that the earning’s ceiling for teachers (at least in Florida) is much higher.

US News and World Report also helpfully provides a list of the top-paying careers. Click here to access that report. Scrolling through, it’s not until #19 that a career – sales manager – shows up that maybe doesn’t require a college degree. Even then, as US News points out, “Many employers prefer a bachelor’s degree in business management.” The list contains 24 jobs, and with the one almost barely exception that is tempered by the quote I included, every single job requires a degree, if not graduate degrees. Their list of “Best Jobs Without a College Degree” isn’t ranked by salary, but it lists the median salaries. Almost all of them have a median salary below the median salary of every state.

I spent more words on that than I want but less than it deserves. My point stands, though: A college degree greatly increases your earning potential. Even the best careers that don’t require a college degree struggle to compare favorably with those careers that require a college degree that pay the least. Whether we like it or not, our society values those with college degrees higher than those without college degrees.

There is a larger meta-economic flaw with all this that weaves into systemic injustices. The second prong helps expose this. For some who are reading, the median salary for plumbers may sound like a good wage. For many, $47k a year sounds like good money. It’s not. One of the things that happens is a systemic-driven myopia. Those under the median salary have a hard time seeing much less grasping the amount of freedom from stress and worry as well as the levels of privilege that accompany a 100K+ a year salary (and that’s on the low end for high salary earners). Abstracts are hard to navigate, and our system feeds us in ways that dull our felt-need to explore the abstracts that make up the existential difference between high earners and the middle-class.

This is something Herbert Marcuse was driving at in One-Dimensional Man. He argues, “Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear – that is, if they sustain alienation.”[1] The ability to own a 65”, 4K, smart TV is less than a consolation prize. It’s a ball and chain imprisoning many in a life that is farther outside what is possible than many realize. Religion is no longer the opiate of the masses; consumer goods are.  

However, this is where my analogy of the two seemingly-contradictory prongs is important to keep in mind. On one hand, we realize that society rewards college degrees. On the other hand, via a dash of cognitive dissonance, we tell ourselves that the gap between the middle class and the upper middle class is negligible. Except, as a general rule, plumbers’ lifestyles are farther away from the lifestyles of accountants, for example, than we’re willing to admit. I mean, but look at his 65” 4k, smart TV. For the record, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with being a plumber. I just wish society believed as I do and valued plumbers enough to be willing to do the hard work of finding ways to give them access to the riches, both material and existential, that have piled up at the top of society.

You see, it doesn’t have to be this way, to begin with. The hierarchy of worth can be erased. There’s no need to live with a little cognitive dissonance to protect the system, especially when the system shouldn’t be protected. Society doesn’t have to be structured in a way that rewards people based off their ability to successfully complete college while also dulling us to the inequities.  

The so-called invisible hand of the market[2] should have guidance because we are not all created equal in ability. Just because someone doesn’t have the cognitive ability to earn a degree that will afford him economic freedom and the existential and societal rewards that come with that freedom doesn’t mean that he should be relegated to hoping to save enough for retirement while spending his life worrying if his HVAC system is going to go caput. That’s a complex economic rabbit hole to jump down, and there’s no reason to do so in this article because here’s where the rubber meets the road for my thesis: both unjust, deceitful prongs encourage student loan debt.  

Among the fourth group of my taxonomy, many of my classmates were planning on transferring to a four-year college but many others were working towards a trade degree. One of the things that has seemingly been lost in the criticisms of the President’s actions is that many plumbers, electricians, and other tradespeople have student loan debt, too (not to mention that nearly 50 percent of people with student loans never graduated – a point I touch on below, but a point that adheres here too because those people are working somewhere and it ain’t on Wall Street). And then there was a selection of my classmates who were taking student loans out to get a mostly useless two-year certificate in things like business.

Society dangles Marcuse’s “free choices among a wide variety of goods and services” in front of us all. And access to those supposed free choices is easiest via a degree or certificate of some kind, we’re told. And we’re told that because it’s largely true; entrance into the fullest expressions of society’s rewards has rules that you must play by whether you’re able to play or not. So, many are confronted with questions: Do you feel trapped in a dead-end job? Are you struggling to pay your rent? Do you want to be able to afford that timeshare in Pigeon Forge? Get a better job, society tells us. And how do you do that? College. And if you don’t want to earn a four-year degree, community colleges offer certificates for these trades that we all believe pay so much. But how can you – individual struggling to pay your rent – afford the entry requirement to the “free choices” society bombards you with? Student loans, that’s how.

According to one study, the graduation rate for community colleges is a hair over 25 percent. Students at four-year colleges and universities have an almost 50 percent graduation rate. Here are questions that society – we – need to grapple with: How many of the around 75 percent of community college students who don’t finish have taken out student loans? Furthermore, how many of those who took out student loans did so under the mistaken belief that they had the requisite cognitive skills to be successful at college?

Listening to my classmates, I was shocked at how many of them bought hook-line-and-sinker what the community college’s marketing department sold them. Interacting with them, including helping them with their coursework, it was readily apparent to me that a large percentage of them were never going to accomplish the objective they had when they enrolled. The college knew this but is financially incentivized to admit students who will never finish. FAFSA is essentially a printing press churning out money for colleges.

Setting aside the problematic use of taxpayers’ resources on grants for those who shouldn’t be in college, FAFSA also steers recipients of the grants into taking out student loans. It’s almost inevitable. People who will never receive the promised payout of a high paying job are seduced into taking out loans that trap them.

It’s easy to sit back and pass judgment on those who make poor decisions. Perspective is important, and just because a decision to take out a student loan is obviously a poor one from your perspective doesn’t mean that everyone else has access to that same perspective. The ability to skillfully navigate choices is rarely innate. For those who are already oppressed by the system, the requite skills to appropriately do a cost/benefit analysis are likely missing.  

Think of it this way (think empathically): You’re an individual approaching thirty and have spent your entire life in a household that is well under the median salary. You’re beginning to realize that this dead end that you’ve been on your whole life is worse than you thought. Closing in on thirty, you’re starting to see friends from high school buying houses, driving nice cars, and enjoying many of the things that marketing departments bombard you with. As you begin the transition from your youthful twenties to the growing adulthood of your thirties, you begin to realize that the dreams and goals you had as a child will never be fulfilled (dreams and goals, by the way, that may be far more limited than those of us with privilege realize[3]). You don’t want to be stuck, so you apply at your local community college. However, because of variables like your background, poor education, and possibly limited cognitive skills, you lack the requisite abilities to successfully navigate the decisions placed in front of you as you seek to better your life. Your understanding of money and debt has been shaped in ways that those who grow up with privilege aren’t. Poverty has its own epistemology, after all. You are ill-prepared to make decisions that will bear good fruit in the future. And in your future, there’s a good chance that you’re going to be counted among the 75 percent. Now, though, after washing out of community college, you’re saddled with student debt. Student debt that a just society would’ve protected you from.

Before I conclude, I’m going to add a personal anecdote. Well, not so much personal for me but for another man made in the image of God.

A few years ago, a man I was discipling began paying too close attention to the ads from Liberty University. Those ads promised him an easy path to a life that had been barred to him since birth for a variety of biological and systemic reasons. Except, he didn’t have the money to attend, and he lacked the cognitive abilities to succeed at Liberty. His application would’ve never been accepted if he was applying to be an on-campus student but his application to study online was accepted (don’t get me started on the unethical, greedy nature of many online degree programs).

After much back and forth and hurt feelings on his part, I finally got him to forget about Liberty and apply at a local community college instead. I doubted that he would be able to succeed at the community college on his own. I promised him that I would tutor him, assuming that it would be a long haul. I also hoped and prayed that with my help he would be able to take advantage of any counseling, tutoring, career advice, etc. that the college offered. I was quickly disabused of that notion.

The college was happy to take his FAFSA grant money and they counseled him to take out student loans so that he wouldn’t have to work fulltime and could focus solely on school, talking him into signing up for more classes than I advised. The cynic in me saw a money grab: Get him to take as many classes as possible (bill him for as many classes as possible) before he washed out. He listened to them and not to me. Thankfully, in an odd way, he washed out so quickly that his grant and loan money never went through. My point in relating this is to point out a specific instance where the system conspired together (although they ultimately failed) to trap someone in student loan debt who had no business being in college to begin with. His story is not unique.

Student loans are a predatory system. It may not be as obviously predatory as payday loans but it’s helping to widen the divides created by inequities our society’s system depends on.

In response to President Biden’s decision on student loan forgiveness, I hear a lot of bemoaning about the unfairness of it for those who paid off their loans or didn’t go to college. Much is being made about how this decision is going to cause inflation to rise. Platitudes about how debts can’t be forgiven, somebody else must pay them are all over my social media feeds. But from the opponents of Biden’s decision, I hear very little empathy directed towards the borrowers, many of whom are being taking advantage of by an unjust system. And I hear very little righteous anger directed at that system.

Followers of King Jesus should be willing to walk the extra mile for our neighbors who are unduly burdened by a system designed to trap them. Discussions about student loan forgiveness should begin and end with how we, those of us with privilege, can serve the hurting and oppressed even if it costs us something. Hiding behind partisan economic talking points is not serving others. The goal of Christians should be to pray for, desire, and work for the overturning of the money changers’ tables. Kingdom ethics demand we do so.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 7-8.

[2] I understand that the invisible hand speaks more to the price of goods and services, but in turn, that does help determine the value of labor. I’m also counting on readers recognizing that I’m not articulating anywhere close to a full-throated explanation of economics.

[3] This was a frequent topic of conversation with the teachers I worked with during my time in the Art’s Integration Program for Title 1 schools. One of the most consistent objectives of the teachers was finding ways to open the world for their students. Many of the students lived in incredibly small worlds and had zero concepts of what was outside their own epistemic boundaries. For example, my son dreams of being an engineer when he grows up. His counterparts in poverty often dream of becoming the assistant manager at a Jiffy Lube – this is neither a joke nor me being mean; it’s a reality that many in this country suffer under. If my son achieves his dream – a dream that will expand and grow because of his privilege – his earning potential will far surpass that of being an assistant manager at a Jiffy Lube. And my son’s path to achieving his dream is far easier for him than his counterpart in poverty’s path to his dream is.

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