Students protestors pull a mock 'ball & chain' representing the $1.4 trillion in outstanding student debt.
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From Public Good to Personal Pursuit: Historical Roots of the Student Debt Crisis

The roots of the student debt crisis are neither economic nor financial in origin, but rather social.
The perception of higher education changed dramatically around 1910. Private colleges began to attract more students from upper-class families – students who went to college for the social experience and not necessarily for learning.

This social and cultural change led to a fundamental shift in the defined purpose of a college education. What was once a public good designed to advance the welfare of society was becoming a private pursuit for self-aggrandizement. Young people entering college were no longer seen as doing so for the betterment of society, but rather as pursuing personal goals: in particular, enjoying the social setting of private colleges and obtaining a respected professional position upon graduation.

In 1927, John D. Rockefeller began campaigning for charging students the full cost it took to educate them. Further, he suggested that students could shoulder such costs through student loans. Rockefeller and like-minded donors (in particular, William E. Harmon, the wealthy real estate magnate) were quite successful in their campaign. They convinced donors, educators and college administrators that students should pay for their own education because going to college was considered a deeply personal affair. Tuition – and student loans – thus became commonly accepted aspects of the economics of higher education.

The shift in attitude regarding college has also become commonly accepted. Altruistic notions about the advancement of society have generally been pushed aside in favor of the image of college as a vehicle for individual enrichment.

A new social contract

If the United States is looking for alternatives to what some would call a failing funding model for college affordability, the solution may lie in looking further back than the current system, which has been in place since the 1930s.

In the 19th century, communities and the state would foot the bill for college tuition because students were contributing to society. They served the common good by teaching high school for a certain number of years or by taking leadership positions within local communities. A few marginal programs with similar missions (ROTC and Teach for America) still exist today, but students participating in these programs are very much in the minority.

Instead, higher education today seems to be about what college can do for you. It’s not about what college students can do for society.
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