My next novel, Homeland (the sequel to Little Brother) is out in a few weeks, and I recently sat down with Nicole Powers from Suicide Girls for an interview about the book and the issues it raises, especially the student-debt bubble:
When it was just rich people going, it wasn’t about just getting a better job, because you were already rich, you already had the entré into the better job. You could already do unfunded apprenticeships and your parents’ friends were the people offering you the unfunded apprenticeships. You had a good five ways within the system. But now it’s a market transaction, and once it’s a market transaction we start applying cost benefit analysis to it. We start saying, well if the university degree earns you so many pounds, then it makes sense to start talking about you paying so many pounds. And if the objective here is to take people whose lifetime income expectancy was so many pounds, and make it a little bit higher –– which is what we call social mobility –– then why shouldn’t that be a virtuous cycle and they pay back into it. That way the university can expand the number of students they take on and all the rest of it, right?
The problem with that is that it’s become a Ponzi scheme, especially in America. We haven’t quite gotten there here. But in America, you have this crazy thing where it is somewhat true and it’s also universally received as true, that you can’t get a good job without a university degree. It’s also the case that universities, including many state colleges –– that are actually owned by the public –– can act as loan originators, which is to say they lend you the money but where those loans are then backed by the federal government. They can lend you any amount of money because there’s no risk to them because the government will take the loan off their hands. Those loans are then further secured by the federal government when they float them as bonds. So you have this weird perverse incentive where the universities, the more they charge the more they get –– which is a bit weird right? Because in real market economies, the more you charge the more you get up to a point, and then people start going, wait a second, that’s not worth it anymore, and they stop paying in. But if I tell you that you can’t get a job unless you get a degree, and then I tell you that no matter how much the degree costs I can get you a loan for that much, all of a sudden you start getting takers for those crazy propositions and that starts to look like a bubble, like a pyramid scheme.
Cory Doctorow: Homeland
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