Game of loans: How can we address the college debt dilemma?


If you’ve graduated from college in the last 10 years, odds are you’re still paying for that education. As the cost of college has soared, so too have the number of loans being taken by students to pay their tuition. More than 70 percent of the class of 2015 graduated with student loan debt, at an average of $35,000 per student. And for most recent grads, that’s not an easy amount to pay off—even with a college degree.

In the latest issue of Yes! Magazine, Yessenia Funes writes about a radical proposal for college graduates drowning in debt: Just don’t pay it. Richard Robbins, an anthropology professor at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, is proposing a mass “debt strike” for next October. If enough people participate, Robbins argues, it will allow the debtors to take back the power from their creditors by withholding payments until the debtors’ demands are met. It would be, according to Robbins’ Debtor’s Bill of Rights, an act of civil disobedience designed to reform an unjust system. Essentially it would follow the same principle as a labor strike, but instead of withholding work the strikers would withhold their loan payments.

While I agree with the sentiment, I can’t say I’d recommend that anyone simply not pay their bills. But Robbins isn’t the only person trying to solve the loan debt issue. Last summer, Barack Obama issued an executive order to cap federal student loan payments at 10 percent of the borrower’s income. For those already struggling to deal with a mountain of debt, this is a start. But the real question is how to address the root cause of the problem that is leading each year’s graduating class to be the most indebted in history.

It is a question that Catholic universities have already been pondering. Catholic education isn’t just about getting students enrolled, handing out degrees, or even preparing young people for jobs. At the heart of their mission, Catholic colleges and universities are focused on forming students for success, be it in their career, their community, their church, or any other area of their lives. As Dominican University president Donna Carroll put it in an article we published on the student loan crisis in 2014, “Catholic universities always have to ask, ‘What is our moral responsibility to our students?’”

Different schools will answer that question in different ways. It might mean counseling students on their financial aid options and helping them find alternatives to loans. It could take the form of colleges partnering with donors or large organizations to offer more scholarship or grant opportunities. Or it might lead to an innovative idea like Arrupe College, Loyola University Chicago’s new two-year college specifically designed to make Jesuit higher education affordable to students without requiring them to rack up loan debt.

Whatever the solution, the goal is the same: Sending college graduates into the world without the burden of figuring out how to pay back their loans. College is meant to give young people an opportunity to pursue their dreams, not leave them contemplating whether they should stop paying their bills.

Flickr image cc by Light Brigading