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Jeffery Till has an excellent piece over at Liberty.me regarding the current, burgeoning issue of college students and graduates who have gone to school for useless degrees and crushing debt.

This is becoming a common story with students and college. They go automatically. They sign up for ridiculous debt that will cripple their livelihood for decades. They don’t get the job they think they are going to get. And many have wasted their time while there.

It would be simple to say to one of these grads “Wow. Look at that terrible, stupid decision you made.”

And if it were something else besides college, people would be saying it. If an 18 year old went into debt to buy a $100,000 car that didn’t work, one might want to call them stupid, especially if they didn’t think it through at all.

But maybe we should look at them as victims.

Did they make a stupid decision..? If you went for math, or an applied science, no — you most likely, even with a BS, have a shot are a pretty good income with a reasonable debt ratio. (A good rule of thumb, kids, is not more than half of what you expect to earn annually…) But for those that took a Ph.D. in history (like yours truly) and racked up over $50,000 in debt — yes, you screwed up. You made a decision only slightly worse than that expensive tattoo you got ’cause it “really is an expression of my [enter stupid sentiment]…”

One of the main issues, Till shows us, is not just that the students made bad decisions regarding their education, but were almost powerless not to. From the moment you squirt out into life, parents are often badgering their kids to go to school. (Well, since the 1950s, and only those that understand an education can be worth something…) The schools push you to it — go to college, you’ll get a good job. The politicians push it, especially now that the government is the main beneficiary of your student loan interest. The banks pushed it for the same reason. The universities and colleges are desperate for the government cheese that comes with students, and they don’t much care if your succeed or fail, and will often stall your graduate studies the best they can, to wring every last dime out of Uncle Sam and your lender…all while decrying private, profit school for doing the same bloody thing.

He points out, rightly, I think, that much of your early life the need to make good decisions, to take responsibility for your actions, is mostly removed from kids in the developed world. You don’t decide if or when to study or do your homework. (Unless you’re a rebel, then more power to ya!) You don’t choose what you study until maybe that elective or two in high school. You’re unlikely to have learned how to read a stock page, or how compound interest works, or that there’s no money fairy that swoops into your parents’ room at night to provide a never ending source of cash for your video game subscriptions. There’s no learning how to manage your time to do what you need to to succeed in school.

So before you start looking at that Ivy League school ” ’cause it’s the best, dude!”, you might want to consider if you are 1) ready for the responsibility of self-motivation, 2) you know what the hell you want to do for your life (then have a plan B, because Plan A isn’t going to survive contact with real life…), 3) you really understand the burden of debt and how badly humped you will be if you take on too much. The banks are protected by the government; you cannot discharge the debt other than paying it off or going into indentured servitude to the government through military service or service in underprivileged areas (and the latter only pays off some of the debt. Oh, and it’s taxable income.)

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