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Student Loans Are a Bridge to Nowhere

On why I painted Department of Education whistleblower Jon Oberg

Robert Shetterly

Editor's note: The artist's essay that follows accompanies the 'online unveiling'—exclusive to Common Dreams—of Shetterly's latest painting in his "Americans Who Tell the Truth" portrait series, presenting citizens throughout U.S. history who have courageously engaged in the social, environmental, or economic issues of their time. This painting of Jon Oberg, a former Department of Education employee who blew the whistle on federal loopholes that allowed companies to profit on student loan deals, is his latest portrait of those who dedicated their lives to equality, freedom and justice. Posters of this portrait and others are now available at the artist's website.

When I’m visiting schools and colleges around the country I ask students what issues concern them most. I used to expect them to say climate change or war, jobs or pollution, money in politics or corruption. I know better now. I expect them to say managing college debt.

"Higher education must lift people up not drag them down with unmanageable debt and second rate credentials that stifle aspirations and prevent upward mobility. It is long past time to stop education exploitation industries from ruining the lives of students and their families, and from damaging the foundations of our economy and our very society." —whistleblower Jon ObergAs you know, that debt burden of student loans has nearly quadrupled in the past 10 years. Today it stands at $1.18 trillion. The average liability per student—whether they earn a degree or not—is nearly $30,000. The poorest 25% of the student population—people with less than $8,000 in assets—own 60% of that debt. How does that debt shape—or should we say engineer?—the direction and quality of their lives, their ability to contribute as citizens and creators of culture? How does that debt narrow the choices available to them, making their young lives into a burden rather than an adventure? College and advanced degrees have always been promoted as the key to advancement, good jobs, and upward mobility. Today, college education is still promoted with those claims, but the key has been thrown away. The student graduates into a lock box of debt.

It takes little insight to understand the importance of education. Or, you might say, it takes little education to understand that importance. How important? Immeasurable. Not only does the maximizing and fulfillment of each human life often depend on education, but the health and maintenance of democracy depends on it. The ability of a society to intelligently and ethically consider questions of values, of economy, of sustainability, of justice—virtually everything—relies on an educated people. A “democracy” of uneducated citizens is as dangerou—to itself and to the world— as any dictatorship.

When we undervalue education, or value it for the wrong reason—as a profit center rather than an investment in people and the future of civilization—it’s like celebrating the construction of a bridge to the future without bothering to secure the support columns and without building the on and off ramps. Imagine the ceremony to dedicate such a bridge. A baffled populace witnesses the elaborate ribbon cutting, the release of ten thousand balloons emblazoned with corporate logos, the smiling men in suits trumpeting the benefits of this bridge. But who did it benefit? The people will be paying taxes for 100 years to own a bridge that takes them nowhere. Such a bridge, just like an education system crippled by inhibiting effect of debt, enforces the status quo. It’s called a bridge, but goes nowhere. It’s called education but stymies innovation, creativity, and risk taking.

The education of our children is our bridge to the future, our bridge to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our bridge to sanity, creativity, morality. When we enslave a generation of students to loan debt, we have decided that we don’t want a future. We have decided that bank profit is a greater good than cultural and political progress. We have even decided that bank profit from student loans is more important than the rest of the economy since students burdened with loan debt are reluctant to buy homes and cars and make investments in their own futures. The primary lesson of this kind of education is to accept a life of reduced expectation for someone else’s profit. The surveillance state teaches the same lesson in regard to privacy.

Last Spring, I was invited to Syracuse University to be part of the Government Accountability Project’s Whistleblower Tour. My many portraits of whistleblowers were part of the tour, as were a number of the people who inspired these portraits, such as Jesselyn Radack and Thomas Drake. There, I was introduced to Jon Oberg, a whistleblower on student loan corruption. I knew nothing about this man who, while working in the Department of Education, had discovered that huge amounts of money—billions of taxpayer dollars—were being funneled back to banking companies through the DoE by means of a little legislative loophole. In turn, the banks were giving senators and congresspeople millions in campaign contributions to keep the loophole open. Don’t you just love these sweetheart deals! You scratch my back, I scratch yours, and we reward each other with other people’s money. Taxpayers lose. Students lose. Democracy loses. The future loses. Banks win. We’ve heard this story before.

When Mr. Oberg reported this situation to his boss, he was was ordered not to investigate. In fact, his job description was re-written so that it specifically forbade him to investigate. But he investigated anyway, on his own time, and uncovered this corruption. He ended up bringing lawsuits on behalf of the American people under the False Claims Act to expose what was happening, close the loophole and recover some of the money. Money that was awarded to him in the suit he returned to students through scholarship programs. Jon’s quote on the portrait I painted of him says :

"Higher education must lift people up not drag them down with unmanageable debt and second rate credentials that stifle aspirations and prevent upward mobility. It is long past time to stop education exploitation industries from ruining the lives of students and their families, and from damaging the foundations of our economy and our very society."

Thom Hartmann points out that the best thing this country could do is forgive all—all $1.18 trillion!—in student debt because it would repay the country many times over. The huge expense of the GI Bill after WW II was a great investment for the government; better educated vets got better jobs, were more entrepreneurial, and paid taxes worth significantly more than the cost of the program. Hartmann says we have created a “lost generation” of debt-saddled, young people lost not only to themselves but unable to help build a more vibrant country. He calls for a Jubilee of Debt Forgiveness that would trigger an American Renaissance of young people free to be creative, take risks, explore ideas and lives without owing a pound of flesh to the banks. So we write off $ 1 trillion? Why not? The Iraq War will cost several times that when it’s finally tallied up. What benefits to society did it bring? Unless you have a lot of stock in Halliburton or Lockheed Martin, it would be hard to name a single plus.

One trillion given to students and the promise of free higher education would revitalize this country and be repaid many times over. Our country’s greatest asset is the energy and creativity of our young people. Why allow that energy to be siphoned off to increase the wealth of a handful of millionaires? Isn’t that a form of cultural suicide?

More importantly, forgiving this debt and creating a free educational system would signal a change in values. We’ve allowed this country to favor the market and the making of profit over every other value. We have been sacrificing the lives of our children and the benefits they can offer to the health of a democratic society by shackling them to debt, turning them into another natural resource to be mined for profit. Our survival as a nation and as a species depends not on profit but on creativity. People like Jon Oberg have shown the way. It’s time to break those chains.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Please visit the Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available. Send Rob an email here.

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