Spiritual Debt

By Josh Wymore

    Few would dispute that higher education is not worth the cost. But the question that lies before proponents of Christian higher education is, “Can we justify the increased cost of a private college education?” The answer to this question can no longer be an unequivocal ‘yes.’

    For many, the decision to attend or remain at a faith-based college may indeed be a wrong one. Yes, a good Christian college shapes the heart and transforms the mind, but is that college being faithful to students if they are unable to apply their virtue to the vocation to which they have been called because they cannot afford to? Teaching students the concept of stewardship while encouraging them to take on ungodly amounts of debt might be the greatest hypocrisy of Christian higher education.

    Proponents of borrowing for a college education often tout statistics reflecting the increased earnings of college graduates compared to high school alums. Numbers around $25,000 a year and $1 million lifetime ease troubled minds when facing a debt load somewhere betwixt the two. But the same argument does not transpose to the private versus public question. Can the private, faith-based institution make a similar claim, justifying the increased debt of its graduates with a single statistic?  

    The answer is no. Despite the arguably better education they receive, private colleges cannot prove their graduates earn more than public institution alums. A substantial difference in debt load does exist, however. Students who borrow to attend public schools accrue an average debt of $20,200 while private school borrowers come away with 37% more: $27,650 (Quick facts, 2010). These numbers sound defensible until one realizes that that 19% of Bachelor’s students directly borrow more than $30,000 in their career—10% of whom surpass the $40,000 mark (Finance, 2010). Were parent-obtained PLUS loans and other debt to be included in this total, the number would skyrocket even further. At the same time, 5.9% of college graduates under the age of 27 are unemployed—the second highest percentage ever (Nelson, 2009). But even if private college graduates did earn substantially more than public college graduates, the bottom line would not explain the real bottom line: students do not attend faith-based institutions because they will make more money after graduation.

    The truth is, students attend Christian colleges (and parents send them there) because of the spiritual difference it will make over the course of their lives. Both parties—especially parents—expect that a Christian education will change them into a better person, not just a stronger worker. If deeper faith and stronger morals were not on the line, few parents would be so eager to sign the hefty tuition check that accompanies each semester.

    We have now reached a crossroads of the ultimate values-based decision: how much is spiritual formation really worth?

    A cursory biblical exegesis might lead one to think the same thing that MasterCard customers believe: it’s priceless. After all, isn’t the Bible completely clear about the relative unimportance of money in light of eternal treasures?

    Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal (Matthew 6:19-20).

    It would seem that a Christian education magically solves both halves of this declarative parable. It allows you to deepen yourself spiritually by emptying yourself of all earthly treasure—perhaps including even a bit more than you currently possess.

    But as is its way, the Bible often provides seemingly contradictory advice on the exact same issues. I was recently reminded by my financial counselor that while Jesus exhorts his followers to “not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’" (Matthew 6:31), Proverbs also commands its readers to work with the tenacity of an ant, making diligent, strategic preparation for times to come (Proverbs 6:6-11).

    One financial principle that seems to hold fast through most of Scripture is the concept of living within one’s means. “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave” (Proverbs 22:7), “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay” (Ecclesiastes 5:5), “Do not be a man who strikes hands in pledge or puts up security for debts; if you lack the means to pay, your very bed will be snatched from under you” (Proverbs 22:26-27).

    Verses like these seem to bounce the issue back to the concept of education as an investment. After all, incurring this debt allows you to increase your means, thereby (eventually) cancelling the debt and enabling you to be even more generous with material possessions. But this hypothetical reality is simply not the case for students who incur an unbearable level of debt.

    Because the demand for college loans is at an all-time high, students are now seeking greater amounts of money from both federal and private sources. Students who surpass the government cap on federal loans ($31,000 for dependent students) have no choice but to pile on riskier indebtedness once they reach this already significant threshold. As a result, private loans have increased from 7 percent of the market share in 1997-98 to 23% in just 10 years (Nelson, 2009). Since private loans typically carry higher interest rates and are more difficult to disavow through personal bankruptcy, this additional debt that would already be difficult to pay off becomes nearly insurmountable.

    Some identify the solution to this particular problem with an increase in the debt limit. Considering student debt in the U.S. is closing in on $1 trillion (Miller, 2011), this decision hardly makes sense in light of the already significant national debt. Others propose cancelling college debt altogether—conveniently removing financial consequences from a generation that is frequently insulated from the inconveniences of life. Neither of these responses addresses the real crux of the issue, however.

    Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of college indebtedness is that students willingly subject themselves to it. Students can look these statistics in the eye and unflinchingly sign off on yet another loan. They generally believe that for the experience they are receiving and for the income that they will soon procure, this investment is a no-brainer. Interestingly enough, that sentiment does not ring as true for students after they graduate from college. A survey administered by Nellie Mae found that “young adults who had been paying back their loans for at least three years reported feeling more burdened than those who were in their first years of repayment, and less likely to agree that the benefits of a college degree made the debt worthwhile” (Draut, 2009, p. 32). Welcome to the real world, students.

    It seems clear then that students who take on unethical levels of debt often either overvalue the college experience or underestimate the deleterious impact that loan payments will have on their lives. Graduates understand the harsh reality; students do not. Many students I talk to do not even know how much debt they are accruing. “I’m not sure,” is a typical response. “My parents are taking care of everything for me.” In the midst of one such conversation with a student, he became concerned and dropped his homework to research his loan balances and interest rates. His worry increased when he realized that his unsubsidized $9,200 loan with an 8% interest rate had amassed over $1,400 in interest in the last two years.

    Not all students are so cavalier with their financial futures. Many take on incredible debt because a college education—specifically, a Christian college one—means more than mere numbers can describe. It provides a symbol of hope to their family or community. It changes them spiritually in ways they would pay anything to have. I was one of those students, after all. But the truth is, excessive debt is at best unfortunate and at worst unethical. Regardless of their desire to wash their hands of these issues, colleges are more than somewhat responsible for the burden their students are shouldering.

    When students select an education they cannot afford, they are not choosing a college—they are choosing a lifestyle. They are choosing years of high monthly payments, of life below the poverty line for a decade or more. In essence, they are choosing against a lifestyle of comfort and mobility and freedom to serve in low-paying but otherwise rewarding positions of ministry. The vast majority of students simply do not understand that.

    Colleges must realize that these decisions are just as much ethical ones as they are business-related. For Christian colleges, this should thus be an opportunity to educate our uninformed students about the intersection of spiritual and fiduciary matters—not an area to turn a blind eye for the benefit of the college’s bottom line. Faculty, staff, and administrators must develop a position on this issue that is both well-informed and in touch with eternal and material economies. Financial aid offices need to seek out students who are at these critical decision points to engage them in thoughtful conversation. Some students need to be discouraged from returning to our institutions because of the debt they will collect, and we should be the ones to discourage them.

     

    Josh Wymore is a proud graduate of two Christian colleges and currently serves at another.

     

    All scripture quoted from the New American Standard Bible.

     

    References

    Quick facts about student debt. The Project on Student Debt. (2010). Retrieved October 27, 2011, at http://projectonstudentdebt.org/files/File/Debt_Facts_and_Sources.pdf

    Draut, T. (Winter 2009). Debt-for-diploma system. The New England Journal of Higher Education, 23(3), 31-32.

    Finance. (2010, August 27). The Chronicle of Higher Education, LVII(1), 37.

    Miller, R. S. (2011, August 17). Experts consider impact of changes to federal loans on student debt. U.S. News and World Report LP. Retrieved October 27, 2011, at http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/student-loan-ranger/2011/08/17/experts-consider-impact-of-changes-to-federal-loans-on-student-debt

    Nelson, D.E. (Fall 2009). Calculated decisions factor into the economics of a college education. Phi Kappa Phi FORUM, 89(3), 17-19.

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