NYU Students: Debt and Debtor

NYU is number one in student debt. But is it really worth it?

Talking to the Voice this fall from Abu Dhabi, where he is working for NYU, Eisenhood elaborated: "It seems to me that the libertarians are off-base when they say, 'Well, they're adults, they should know better,'" he says. "There needs to be more information from universities and the government and even from banks—you know, 'Are you sure you want to take on this debt to get this degree? It's not free. It seems free now, maybe, but you're going to have to pay it back.'"

That call, for NYU to take more responsibility for educating prospective students about the realities of debt, is actually one that the university has heeded to some extent.

In 2009, NYU called more than 1,800 of 7,300 accepted students whose scholarship packages wouldn't come close to covering their tuition and asked if they were really sure that going to NYU was such a good idea.

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Andrew Jenks and masked NYU students during the ‘Casualties of Debt’ protest.
Andrew Jenks
Andrew Jenks and masked NYU students during the ‘Casualties of Debt’ protest.

But that gesture generated its own backlash. Some students who received the calls told the press they found them discriminatory, and an editorial in the student-run Washington Square News worried the calls would discourage lower-income students from enrolling. "If promising and motivated students choose not to attend, and any student able to pay the bill fills their spot, NYU risks undermining both its prestige and its socioeconomic diversity," the piece stated. "NYU must turn inward and ask itself which quality it values more in its students: motivation, or financial solubility?"

In this instance at least, NYU found itself damned either way. If it made it easy for students to finance their educations with massive loans, it was guilty of economic exploitation and collusion with banks to create a generation of highly educated wage slaves. If it took steps to counsel students about the real consequences of those loans, it was shutting the door to a transformative opportunity to the people who could most benefit from it.

As much as students and activists blamed the university for greasing the wheels on their precipitous roller-coaster dive into crippling debt, many were profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of the university doing anything that would limit enrollment to students who could put cash down on the spot.

Zac Bissonnette, a UMass graduate who wrote Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents, was unimpressed by what he saw as an ineffective infantilism in the NYU debt protests.

"Protesting the amount of money you decided to borrow in order to go to NYU is sort of like moving to New England in the middle of January and then holding signs protesting the cold temperatures and abundant snow," Bissonnette wrote on Daily Finance. "NYU students have a legitimate concern—the amount of money that they're borrowing is insane—and the way that they should handle it is to vote with their feet. Transfer to another school. Deprive NYU of its source of revenue and save yourself in the process. But voluntarily borrowing huge amounts of money to give it to a school while simultaneously shaking your fist at it doesn't help anyone."

Bissonnette's critique is a striking one, because it brings home what makes NYU's debt debate different from the national one. If states are gutting funding for public universities, as they are, that has profound implications for access to education in this country. If a burgeoning industry of for-profit schools is going to extraordinary lengths to put those most in need of education into massive debt for often worthless degrees, that's criminal.

But if NYU thinks it can fund its ascent to the top tier of universities by charging massive tuition and offering minimal student aid, it's not as though prospective students don't have other options. Schools with even better reputations than NYU have more generous aid packages, and there are literally scores of other colleges that offer "the New York experience" where you won't have to put your life in hock for a diploma. Yet last year, 42,242 students applied to the school—the largest applicant pool ever. What gives?

Talking to undergraduates and recent alumni, it seems the answer has a lot to do with youthful optimism and with a vision of their lives that extends through their happy days of schooling in the great metropolis but perhaps not much further.

"Students go to NYU because it's in New York City," Eisenhood says. "When I applied, they had a question on their application: 'Other than living in New York, why do you want to attend NYU?' And I was like, wow, that's actually really hard. I forget what I said—'Great research opportunities,' or something, but I didn't really believe it."

But as much as NYU sells itself on its location, it has some strong programs to recommend it. The university's Stern School of Business is ranked number five among undergraduate business programs by U.S. News & World Report, and students can reasonably expect that between their degree and some well-chosen internships at New York firms, they will be well-poised for a career that will allow them to easily pay back any debt they take on.

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