Acton Institute Powerblog

No, Snowflake, We’re Not Responsible for Your Student Loan Debt

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buried“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible,” said Stanisław Jerzy Lec. Whether that is true in nature, it’s certainly seems to be true for many of the precious little snowflakes who find themselves, after making poor educational decisions, buried under an avalanche of student loan debt. Consider, for instance, this op-ed by Tad Hopp, a student in “his last semester in the MDiv program at San Francisco Theological Seminary.”

Before we delve into what will be one of the worst opinion pieces of the year, let me offer a word of caution. Reading Mr. Hopp’s op-ed may affect you, as it did me, by filling you with despair. Can America survive when millions of people have such a self-centered sense of entitlement? I’m not sure. And if you’re prone to declinist thinking, you’ll want to skip the rest of this post. Here’s a compilation of kitten videos to watch instead.

Let’s start by reviewing the circumstances Mr. Hopp finds himself in:

1. Goes to an expensive private college and majors in a subject that is in low demand on the job market (English).
2. Graduates with $50,000 in debt and is unable to find a job.
3. Goes to another expensive private college and majors in a subject that is in low demand on the job market (Master of Divinity).
4. Nears graduation with an additional $50,000 in debt and no prospect for finding a job.

As Mr. Hopp says,

Perhaps you can see my dilemma here. Here I am, about to graduate from a very prestigious master’s degree program, saddled with student loan debt and the constant worry that I won’t be able to find a job once I graduate.

Based on that list of events you might expect him to provide a wise, experienced-based warning that others should not follow his example. You might expect him to advise, “Don’t go to a college you can’t afford, don’t wrack up debt you can’t pay, and don’t major in a subject that won’t help you get a job. And for goodness sake don’t do all those things twice!

But instead, Mr. Hopp takes a different approach:

So, what are we doing about it? Is the PC(USA) doing anything to address this crisis?

Wait, what? What are we going to do about it? Why do we need to do anything, other than commiserate with him over his poor choices?

Mr. Hopp repeatedly says he was “called”: “I went to the school where I felt I was being called . . . I felt called to go to seminary – and I felt called to my particular seminary.” But who exactly was doing the calling? Certainly not his denomination:

I imagine at least a few of you are familiar with the difficulties of the call process in the PC(USA) right now. Churches are closing their doors left and right. There are fewer and fewer pastoral jobs out there and more people seeking those jobs. Churches that were once thriving are now having a hard time paying a salary that can cover all of a pastor’s living expenses, especially when you take into account those student loan payments.

The PC(USA) was apparently not the one calling him to go to two expensive colleges to prepare for a pastoral job that likely didn’t exist. Maybe Mr. Hopp is confusing “calling” with “doing what I want to do.”

As it turns out, his denomination is not the only one to blame for his plight:

What has our government done to address this issue? I would argue: absolutely nothing. Things are no better now than they were when I graduated college eight years ago. I, like so many in my generation, voted for Obama hoping for large-scale change under his leadership, and yet he’s been stalled at every turn by a Congress who, judging by their approval ratings at the very least, doesn’t seem too preoccupied with caring for the people they claim to represent.

Yes, what is wrong with Congress? Why don’t they care about the people who make dumb educational choices and agree to take on mounds of debt they cannot (or do not want to) repay? Why isn’t the government rushing to spend the taxpayers money to help this poor, unfortunate group of entitled folk?

Oh, and you know the one person we shouldn’t blame at all? That’s right: Mr. Hopp.

Yes, I chose to go to college and graduate school, with much support and encouragement from friends and family. Yes, the economy tanked right before I graduated from college. And yes, I am graduating seminary at a time in our nation’s history when religion is statistically becoming less and less important to people’s lives.

So, is it my fault? Should I have ‘known better’ – or done something more financially responsible than get an education? I personally think that’s the wrong question. Chalking the plight of the 40 million Americans shackled by student debt up to ‘poor choice’ by individuals sounds a lot like blaming the victims. Such an approach does nothing to address the root cause of the problem: the fact that we as a society unilaterally encourage people to go to pursue higher education but fail to support them with adequate financial assistance.

Sounds a lot like blaming the victims? Perhaps. You know, if I punch myself in the face, I am both the perpetrator and the victim. If I were to complain that my jaw hurt and someone replied that maybe I shouldn’t have socked myself in mouth I could claim they were “blaming the victim.” I could claim that, but I wouldn’t because it’d make me sound like an idiot. Adults take responsibility when they knowingly and willingly harm themselves. They don’t expect someone else to take full responsibility for their self-harm.

And what about all the friends and family who supported and encouraged Mr. Hopp to go to schools he couldn’t afford? Has he approached them yet and asked them to pay up for “failing to support him with adequate financial assistance”? I doubt he did.

Besides, it’s not really their fault. The problem is the system. What other choice do we really have but to take out loans for expensive colleges?

It seems to me that we’ve bought into the lie that student loan debt is brought on by the individual person and not by the fact that our system doesn’t encourage or even allow for any other model. Who in middle-class America has $100,000 saved up that they can just give away to the institution of their choice so they won’t incur any student loan debt?

Actually, there is another model: don’t go to colleges you can’t afford. Mr. Hopp suffers from an affliction that strikes many middle-class Americans: higher education entitlement. If they want to go to an expensive school but can’t afford to go to an expensive school then someone else is obligated to pay for their education. That’s only fair, right?

Oh, but it gets worse. Hobbs then jumps into some of the most absurd economic analysis you’ll ever read:

You know what I think might stimulate the economy? Automatically canceling every single outstanding student loan! Go ahead, call me crazy; people have been responding to my proposal that way for years.

But think about it for a minute, will you? Cancelling student loan debt would mean upwards of 40 million people who would suddenly have money to spend on things that they couldn’t before – things like houses, cars, plane tickets, you name it! Think about how fast the economy would improve if 40 million Americans suddenly had more disposable income. But of course, that would never happen, would it? That would mean valuing the people taking out loans for their education over the corporations doing the lending! And, as Citizens United never ceases to remind us, corporations are people too.

Mr. Hopp can probably be forgiven for this type of reasoning (he probably never had to take a class in economics). What he fails to recognize is the effect of canceling the debt would have no effect. Whether a person spends money on “things like houses, cars, plane tickets” or on paying down their debt doesn’t matter. Oh, it might matter to them personally. But it wouldn’t affect economic growth since the exact same amount of money would enter the economy whether it was spent on plane tickets or loan repayments.

In reality, though, student loan forgiveness would make the economy worse off. Mr. Hopp doesn’t seem to care about the “corporations doing the lending” because he fails to recognize that corporations are just people. The money was lent by people who expected to get repaid so that they could spend the money on “things like houses, cars, plane tickets”—or expensive private colleges for their kids. If they don’t get paid they are much worse off.

Why not just have the government pay the loans? Because, again, “government” in this case is just another word for “American taxpayer.” Every dollar that the American taxpayer gives to pay off someone’s student loan debt is one less dollar they can use for “things like houses, cars, plane tickets.”

What Mr. Hopp’s is really asking for is a redistribution of income from people who didn’t make bad educational decisions to people who feel entitled not to pay their debts. Mr. Hopp is making the case that he and millions of other Americans should be freeloaders. They want the taxpayer equivalent of moving into their parent’s basement and living rent-free.

The one thing I agree with Mr. Hopp about is when he says, “We need to have a serious conversation about student loan debt.” Indeed, we do. The main thing that needs to be said is that if you take out a loan to buy luxury goods (like expensive colleges) you have a moral obligation to repay it. It’s time we start expecting that all Americans—especially those who want to lead our churches— to start acting like adults instead of whiny, entitled children.

There are many issues of economic and social justice that should be of concern for Christians. Paying back the student loans of middle-class snowflakes who feel “called” to make bad decisions is not one of them.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • joe

    All this above is true, and still true that the Church needs to find new ways to legitimize and train better, and cheaper its pastors, planters and missionaries. In terms of ‘market’ speak, the same could be true in other industries that need human capital, to both expand and provide better services. But in the church we have entirely different motivations and ends guiding us.

    • Demon Teddy Bear

      In the Christian church yes. PCUSA is just a dead old religion – and Mr Hopp sounds like he didn’t plan on changing that.

  • Charlie

    A Masters in Divinity and Mr. Hopp is unfamiliar with the Commandments not to steal and not to covet thy neighbor’s ox or ass.

    • Honordads

      Or “owe no man anything but love…” and all that. Great post, Joe. You said it better than I thunk it.

    • Demon Teddy Bear

      Indeed. Or “he that does not work does not eat”.

  • The whole student debt problem could be instantly solved if students could get rid of the debt through bankruptcy as other debtors can. By interfering in the market and guaranteeing to lenders that students can never get out from under massive debt, the state has made it possible to enslave a whole generation of gullible young people.

    Yes, students should be more prudent, but what about the lenders? If they faced losing their loaned funds through bankruptcy they would be much more careful about who they loaned to and the student in question would never have been offered a loan in the first place.

  • Discontentwliars

    The loans to students for fields that don’t pay, don’t exist shouldn’t be made in the 1st place. Maybe he ought to blame the colleges for offering the degrees in the first place. We could establish the jobs we need to have filled, and have the state determine who gets to go to the university or who gets the electrical worker, plumber, street cleaner jobs. I understand that system worked really great. Oh wait, there are those pesky people that want to be their own boss, responsible for their own career, or family. Leave it to a few misfits that want to control their own life to screw things up for you. Oh well, I suggest you look into pizza delivery. Driving skills are required though.

  • Emily Norwood

    I think it’s easy to say these harsh words when you’ve never personally gone through it. Personally, I went to a relatively inexpensive university and accrued $30,000 of student loan debt. I studied English with a minor in Spanish (after all, this country told me it was the land of opportunity and that I should follow my dreams). I studied abroad for a semester, which as it turned out involved no extra expense (it was actually cheaper if I recall correctly). I am bilingual and have been self-studying (I don’t have money, after all) a third language for almost two years now. Currently I have three jobs, but I get most of my hours from a yogurt shop and get paid $8 an hour (the other jobs I have get slightly better pay but very bad hours). As a Republican, I understand the temptation to blame the students, and I certainly don’t expect the government to pay for my education. But I think it foolish to ignore the problem and blame us when there are so many people in a similar situation. Education reform is needed in more ways than one. We don’t deserve to rot in yogurt shops for the mere crime of choosing to major in English when we were told to go to college at age 19 when we weren’t exactly mature enough to be choosing

  • Emily Norwood

    A major based on it’s “demand in the job market.” I use myself as an example because I consider myself more average than Mr. Hopp who buried himself face deep in debt with TWO useless degrees. Trust me, I don’t intend to get any more education until I can pay for it out of pocket. But you can see how I’m trapped on that one.

  • In Grand Rapids, Mallory Heinery studied to be a nurse. She writes today in the Washington Post: My for-profit university folded. I refuse to pay back my student loans. Students like me don’t want a handout. Merely justice for students ensnared in a debt trap.

  • rhyzome1

    Any discussion of any debt takes place within the context of creditor liability or not. This one doesn’t– rather, hiding a stiff-necked absolute- lender- responsibility trope behind a cheep snowflake metaphor.

    This, of course, gets us nowhere fast, and is predictably compounded by a high-schoolish lecture as to how what’s ‘really’ going on would be a taxpayer burden.

    Now I’ll just make two points:

    1) Within the context of a realistic discussion that involves creditor liability, it’s easy to see that 18-year olds were given loans based upon false prospects of repayment. Said prospects, of course, would be based upon securing a job upon graduation that would enable repayment.

    So here, absolute creditor non-liability sounds prima facie absurd, assuming that high-school students know as much about job prospects as the lender -government.

    2) Said taxpayer burden would be the same as public financing of college education, which is ostensibly the real solution. Like the health care issue, amerikans need to admit that their way is simply wrong, and European social welfare is right.

    federal control over funds would lower taxpayer costs because the present ‘market-value’ demand of colleges would be annulled.

    Likewise, the author fails to mention that taxes are paid by real people with huge variances in disposable income. In other words, ‘taxpayer’ is a hopeless abstraction that avoids the issue of wealth and progressive taxation. In other words, in order to keep the rotten system we have, simply tax wealth to make up for the government’s loss.