Being a teacher and instructor in college is more challenging than ever. Nervous eyes take glances at iPhones, quickly minimize Facebook apps, and craft rapid text messages. Students are unbridled in their distraction. They look uncomfortable sitting still.
As a college instructor for about 4 years, I’ve become increasingly aware of fellow educators expressing frustration over “lazy” students that multitask. Some educators ban smartphones and iPads during classes. Others call out students that text in class, and ridicule them in front of peers — aiming towards social conformity.
Unfortunately, technology is serving as a scapegoat for something worse. Teachers want to limit these technological forms of distraction to heighten learning for everyone, but this classroom management strategy misses a fundamental problem. Today’s students aredistracted, but their attention problem results from atmospheric student loan debt and poverty.
The American Dream and business of higher education
Built in to our ailing economy and concrete erections is a fundamental dream: hope for a better life. It’s why many emigrate here.
While achieving that success is attained through various methods, college still serves as the number one predictor of middle class life. High school graduates make a median salary of $651. By attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher, individuals make a median salary of $1,108.
For decades, the message has universally been towards greater higher educational attainment. Generations of students, employees, employers have followed this rule — requiring college educations and encouraging people to get at least a bachelor’s degree. Now, about 32% of Americans have college degrees.
Guidance counselors ask high school and college-aged students to envision anything they want to accomplish. Fundamentally, they ask, “What do you desire?” and “What would you like to do if money were no object?”
But money is an object, and we are controlled by its properties — through empowerment or restriction. These questions of freedom tease students with a reality that doesn’t exist.
Student loans restrict, constrict, and destroy choice
Many will graduate with nauseating student loan debt. Heck, there’s $1.2 trillion right now! For class of 2013 college graduates, the average student loan debt was nearly $30,000. With that amount of debt and interest rates that vary from 3.86% to 7.21%, today’s graduates don’t have the freedom that’s espoused and propagated by higher education and mainstream media.
The problem gets compounded as “student tuition now outweighs state funding at public colleges.” Now, state taxes and revenue sources are contributing to even less of the total cost for students. This all flies in the face of socialistic policies in many European countries that have highly progressive, free (tax-supported) higher education.
Americans place the burden on students as young as 17 to make educated decisions that could affect the rest of their lives. Faltering in payments and failing to swiftly pay off the debt can lead to forbearance, default, skyrocketing interest rates on credit cards, and more. Credit scores and future livelihood are at risk.
Educating the desperate, sleep-deprived, and in debt
The interest is already ticking for many before graduation. Students can feel eager to get a job, get paid, and pay off debt. But even before they graduate, they must ask themselves some serious questions:
- Should I work during college?
- Should I take more than a normal credit load each semester to finish faster?
- Should I skip study abroad opportunities that cost more and may extend my time?
Previous generations had the incredible luxury of minuscule tuition rates. Between 1978 and 2013, college tuition and fees grew by an overwhelming 1,225%. Simply put, college cannot be paid for with summer jobs and temporary work.
To the financially disenfranchised, student loans fill the gap for access. But there are still students that work during college. I had two jobs while also a full-time student, and there are many like me.
Then, there are students with disabilities, children, and veterans of foreign wars (to name a few). They are challenged to keep paying utilities, attain an education, and somehow keep a roof over their children’s heads. Again, student loans often serve as a mediator to accessing education — a temporary source of funding to attain a better income and vocational future. But real dreams can subtly disappear from view as financial aid bills take precedent.
Student loans magically appear, as do depressed dreams
Like many of my readers, I’ve worked hard to turn around my financial future. When I was in debt, I felt horrible. I spent money without concern and bought things I couldn’t afford. My debt was the illusion of success.
When I finally stopped to breathe in May 2013, I realized I had dug a hole nearly $40,000 deep. I was embarrassed with what I had done, and who I’d become. I wondered what I could do to reverse this dangerous course. Trust me when I say this is a common problem for many students.
Financial aid usually was deposited into negative balances at universities and then extra amounts were distributed to the individual student’s bank account. Suddenly, bank accounts were flush with thousands of dollars — budgets seemed irrelevant.
Everyone from the in debt to the creditors to general public confuses these loan instruments for real cash. Yes, you can spend student loans however you see fit, but the consequences are punishing. Every dollar is taxed by the current loan interest rate, and is a dollar in the wrong direction: towards poverty.
The problem of poverty in college-age students
Unlike the clarion calls that suggest America is number one, we seem to have created a master plan for educational failure. Research suggests that “poverty, itself, hurts our ability to make decisions about school, finances, and life, imposing a mental burden similar to losing 13 IQ points.”
By saddling our future graduates with nearly $30,000 in average student loan debt and a future of near poverty for many, we are hurting their ability to learn in the process. Lower-income and impoverished populations constantly report lower amounts of sleep, vocational uncertainty, higher stress, and show evidence of hindered decision-making capabilities.
These are the students of today. They are trying to succeed in a cultural landscape that begged them to get educated, punished them for getting that college degree with years of debt payments, and then limited their employment options.
As the dreams fade due to financial concerns, anxiety and distractedness likely increase. The dream of “What’s your purpose?” can quickly be replaced with “Who will hire me?”
We want bright, capable graduates, but we “victim blame” them instead
America is eager to have the best workforce in the world. We are a nation that aims to be a beacon of hope and role model to developing states. And yet, we are breeding and cultivating some of the most in debt, distracted, and impoverished students.
It’s not in the interest of this country, the world, and future progeny to continue this wicked cycle of educational attainment and poverty. It’s not in the interest of creating a bright, educated populace to have them cowering in poverty for doing so. It’s not in the interest of America to impair decision making in finances and education in the process.
As teachers express frustration for their distracted students, they need to fundamentally understand the complex, systemic interplay of student loan debt. This financial instrument is inherently complex and can psychologically impair the most capable students. They might not be able to pay attention because they’re burdened by a future of poverty, student loan debt, and restricted opportunities.
Something needs to change. This system isn’t sustainable. Fortunately, a small light of hope might be on the horizon.
President Barack Obama recently announced a massive initiative to empower those from diverse financial backgrounds to receive a “free” education. His plan includes funding community college educations for those working part-time and maintaining certain educational requirements. Over the coming months this will be hotly contested and debated. But this is the first step, in what needs to be many, for those in need of an education that’s truly accessible and affordable.
Students cannot continue to shoulder most of the burden. There are powerful inequalities in income and wealth — educational opportunities shouldn’t be one of them. If we can muster the courage and wherewithal to increase taxes towards education, we may see what America is truly made of.