Talk of mass student loan forgiveness will hopefully help students, but it can also shame them.
Many people regard it as yet another expense we can't handle as a country while also refusing to acknowledge the societal expectation put upon young adults that they need to go to college to succeed. Additionally, loans for student borrowers are higher than almost any business loan and even most mortgage rates dating back to the 1980s.
Alex Hluch is a producer, writer and comedian residing in Los Angeles. This article is part of CoinDesk's "Education Week."
This nexus of forces, combined with the fact that financial literacy is not taught in the public education system, causes shame and regret among student borrowers. I wanted to create something to comment on this unique experience, as I have a significant amount of debt across multiple institutions.
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“College Admission” is a performance art piece. I traveled to each of the nine institutions I attended as a student and took a photo on campus with either my diploma or my transcript. The price of each photo is equivalent to the amount of debt I have from each university, and the non-fungible tokens (NFT) representing the schools where I don’t have any debt are up for auction starting at 1 USDC each.
This collection seeks to showcase the vast economic disparity between public and private academic institutions as well as the chasm between graduate and undergraduate education.
My goal with this project is to devillify those with student loan debt, the pursuit of higher education and financial regret. I want to take a truly critical lens to an American institution that has become culturally de rigueur.
I chose NFTs as a medium because I believe in blockchain as the future of education. And if I'm truly being honest, I find it hilarious that someone can obtain roughly as much as I obtained for some of these degrees. (In my case, a piece of paper. In the buyer's case, a well-thought-out photo of that piece of paper.)
I ruminated on this project for months before starting and I quickly realized that not only is the stigma behind having student loan debt building on a principal shame of not having enough money to support one's self during college, but there's also added shame in disclosing just how much you've spent, and on what degree. Culturally, $100,000 on a JD is far different than $100,000 on an MFA.
I know. I have two MFAs.
Over the course of my far-too-extended academic career, I attended nine institutions: community colleges, public universities, graduate programs, an early-enrollment program and one private university. I attended this many institutions because I truly loved education and academia, and I craved the security that comes with “having a graduate education.” My experience showed me every different realm of higher education and gave me insight into their variables.
None of my debt comes from an institution I attended for undergrad – I only have debt at the three institutions I attended for my graduate education. And yet, I have over $180,000 in student loan debt across these three institutions. Over half of the debt ($110,000) comes from the one private institution (Loyola Marymount) while the rest (less than half) comes from the other two institutions, which are public.
This entire project was an exercise in shame and vulnerability. The largest current problem with amassing great amounts of student loan debt (other than the crippling financial burden that keeps you from accumulating any positive station in life) is the stigma the country has lumped on student borrowers.
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We have spent generations telling everyone that they need to go to college or they won’t be safe in the country’s economic landscape. America treats college like a golden ticket while simultaneously shaming and scaring anyone out of any alternative life path. Additionally, predatory lending practices (anything over 3% is predatory when student borrowers have little to no financial acumen, as I did at 21) have catapulted an entire generation into a debt crisis that makes saving for retirement much more difficult.
To be clear, I'm a staunch advocate of civilizations advancing knowledge and critical thinking, but we need to look at the predatory lending practices around federal (and especially private) student loans. (Do we honestly think giving kids a loan at 6% interest when they've just turned 18 is a sound economic idea?) We need to redirect the focus from how taxpayers are shouldering the burden to how the federal government publicly exploits young people who want to better themselves, all while saving money on state-subsidized public education.
With this NFT collection I hope to make others feel less guilty for seeking to obtain something they were told to want. I hope to make others reassess that the villain isn't the pursuit of higher education, but the political benefactors and banks that have made wild profits off of this endeavor.
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I adore the pursuit of higher ed and think that educating a populace is the function of any civilization. I also think we live in a country where politicians seek to villainize young people trying to better their station in order to win over voters. We need to start calling out the hypocrisy in higher education funding while destigmatizing how much a handful of generations have already sunk into what may turn out to be more of a shell game than a viable return on investment.