Phi Beta Cons

The $170,000 Question

How much is a photography degree worth?

Probably not as much as it costs — especially if it costs you a marriage. The New York Times tells the story of Allison Brooke Eastman, whose fiancé broke off their engagement after she disclosed the massive student-loan debt she had acquired on the way to becoming an X-ray technician/part-time photographer.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans might make sense if you are on your way to becoming a cardiac surgeon. But borrowing enough money to buy a house in order to learn to take pictures? Something is wrong with both the borrower and the lender in this scenario. Many students, such as Ms. Eastman perhaps, do not realize how enormous amounts of debt will affect their lives and limit their choices later on. Their path to financial ruin is paved by a culture of educational inflation and irresponsible lending.

The education bubble has been fueled by lenders and college administrators who are thinking mostly about their own paychecks. Quite simply, more students plus more student loans equals more money in the system. A growing number of university presidents are making more than a million dollars per year. (If that’s what it means to work in a non-profit organization, please sign me up!) Lenders have felt secure because, until recently, bankruptcy did not provide an easy escape from student loans, as it did many other types of debt. The unanswerable question for me is: What are students thinking when they take on these massive loans in pursuit of careers that almost certainly will not repay the investment?

The fact is: Many jobs and career paths simply do not fit into a culture where a four, five, or six-year university education is a mandatory right of passage. As my former classmate Matthew Shaffer — who, by the way, is one of two new William F. Buckley Fellows at National Review (Congrats, Matt!) — pointed out, the student-debt crisis looks a lot like the housing/subprime-mortgage fiasco.

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