Student loans have become the modern-day version of indentured servitude, a financial arrangement that enabled immigrants to pay for their voyage to the American colonies with a promise of employment when they got here. This was not slavery as such, but unscrupulous employers exploited those poor people – not unlike today’s colleges and universities with their implied promises of higher paying jobs for their graduates.

Mercenary lenders are at the core of this national scandal. With the loans guaranteed by the federal government, they have no credit risk – and thus no concern about the student’s potential for future repayment or education.

In a job interview, the applicant’s academic record of achievement, his or her work ethic and experiences as evidenced by prior jobs, extracurricular activities, personal appearance and demeanor are carefully examined. References are typically required to validate this information. Ironically, the student loan process is far less stringent. A warm body with an immature young person’s dream will usually suffice. If they have the tuition money, some college somewhere will take their money.

If you get fired or quit a job, you can always look for a new job and get a fresh start or file for unemployment. However, student loans follow the student until paid or death. Not even bankruptcy can discharge these debts. It is doubtful that many students fully appreciate the significance of this burden. Are they ever told? Herein lies the essence of involuntary servitude.

The biggest problems with student loans rest upon the colleges and universities, who accept so many students who are not college material. They should be required to refund the tuition loan if the substandard student fails to graduate. This would be a fair quid pro quo for breaching the implied contract that a good job would be the student’s reward upon graduation.

A byproduct of this student loan largess is grade inflation. Keep the underachieving students in school borrowing more and more money to pay more and more tuition.

Grade inflation works in tandem with tuition rate increases. It is a vicious cycle. As tuitions go up, so do the student loans.

God forbid! We can’t flunk out any of these cash cows, their tender self-esteem egos would be scared for life if told they were not very smart or lacked the work ethic to master the subject matter. It is better to give them a worthless diploma from a mediocre school and let them blame themselves, their parents, the economy and everyone but their alma mater and the student loan originators.

The students are not blameless in this cycle of shame. Each and every student has the option of working his or her way through school. For qualified students, especially those of limited financial means, there are an abundance of scholarships available. If you don’t qualify for a scholarship academically, that is the student’s first clue he or she may not be college material. Yet even these students have many options available. Consider the thousands of student athletes admitted with athletic scholarships. They put forth the effort to excel outside the classroom. Many more thousands of students work full time and go to night school.

The military offers scholarships. Some employers offer scholarships, many more offer summer jobs for good students. Every campus has an abundance of jobs from food service to teacher assistants to maintenance.

Virtually every college and university now offers night school classes and online classes at home for those students who need day jobs. Sadly, online classes are now the norm during the Covid-19 pandemic, but there is little done in the form of tuition concessions for this diminished educational experience.

Any student who borrows money for college rather than working to pay for his or her own college education should look in the mirror and ask themselves if they have what it takes to get a meaningful college education that results in a good paying job. If they lack the work effort and dedication as a student, they are not going to be transformed into a productive worker by a diploma. After graduation they will be working the rest of their lives – whether or not they get a good job, and the student loans will be there with them until paid.

The bottom line is that there is no free lunch in the pursuit of higher education. The top students will always find a way to succeed. Their road to success is straighter, but not without hurdles, and student loans can be the tallest hurdle. They are not immune to the siren’s song of student loans. Many doctors and lawyers struggle with student loans for years after entering the workforce.

What can be done? What should be we do?

We can start by recognizing that all students are not capable of college level achievement. Colleges who want their tuition dollars via student loans have relaxed their academic curricula to get them in and keep them in school. The parents and students need to recognize and accept this reality. While making such a painful decision, they should consider how much more cruel it will be to fail or underachieve at the college level and leave with the burden of student loans and poor job prospects. This is especially true if they get a diploma from a mediocre college that is dead on arrival in their job search.

There are many jobs and trades that pay more than can be earned with a mediocre or irrelevant college degree. These other jobs can often lead to self-employment and business success with college grads working for them. Without the burden of student loans and four or more years of lost earnings it is easier to buy that first home or start your own business.

To be sure, there will always be parents who are willing and able to foot the bill for their children’s college education. For them, there will always be a college willing to take their money and give them a diploma – if not an education. These people are victims of the system, but not the student loan scam.

When student loans are the only viable alternative, we need to fix the system so as not to exploit vulnerable students who are not likely to succeed and prosper with a formal college education. Minorities and students from small towns in rural America who seem to get preferential treatment in admissions are especially vulnerable if their high school education was not on a par with the more affluent suburban schools.

At a minimum, there should be an independent testing and evaluation of loan applicants that screens out the failures before they happen. Major universities do a good job of this screening. If you are accepted by Harvard or Yale or Stanford and complete the curriculum, with that diploma in hand you will get a good job. The same for flagship state universities and many private universities such as Northwestern, Notre Dame and the University of Chicago.

The situation gets much more complicated with second and third tier colleges, and especially “for profit colleges.” As they compete for students, there is an inherent conflict of interest in their acceptance policies. They need the money, and student loans are the easiest way to get students in the door. Academic standards are compromised and marginal students are “given a chance to succeed or fail.” Sadly, few fail if they keep paying tuition. This is like the Little League teams that now give a participation trophy to every player – win or lose, except there are no student loans associated with that hypocrisy.

There are winners and losers in almost every aspect of life. We were taught this by Charles Darwin who gave us the theory of evolution based on survival of the fittest. College should be like this, as it was several generations ago. They flunked out half the freshman class in my law school at the University of Illinois back in 1959. Nowadays, almost all universities say their darling little students are just too smart to flunk them out. What’s not being said is the little buggers are paying a lot more tuition than I did – and I had to earn every dollar I paid with summer jobs, school term meal jobs, night and weekend jobs, and an Illinois National Guard tuition scholarship.

It seems that student loans have corrupted both schools and students. The colleges and universities need to be held to account for their graduates with job placements or tuition refunds. Some should be sued for fraud and put out of business by government prosecutors and students should have their own right to sue for false promises. In short, the schools need to be held accountable.

Perhaps there should be some standardized tests before graduation, as well as before admission. No pass, no diploma. The school should then provide free education, a job or a tuition refund. Every other business is held accountable for what they sell. Why not colleges?

The government needs to get more involved in the process and out of the student loan business. Banks would be much more prudent in their lending policies if it was their stockholders’ money at risk and not Uncle Sam’s. Employers can be incentivized to provide transition jobs, such as internships, training programs and wage subsidies while relaxing regulations that stifle entry level employment. Pensions, healthcare, vacations, unemployment benefits, severance pay, etc. can wait until a probation period is satisfied.

Student loans have become a festering sore for our children and grandchildren. Our government that created this economic bondage needs to fix the problem. The colleges who have exploited these students and employers must both be part of the solution or they will continue to exploit the dreams and work ethic from the best and brightest of our younger generations.

The forgiveness of debt and free college for everyone as proposed by Bernie Sanders would be a cruel disaster. Too many young people would still waste years in college with no good job prospects, when they could have been learning and earning on a job with far better prospects in line with their capabilities.

However, Bernie may be at least partially right (or should I say “left”) in that trade schools, junior colleges, online courses, apprenticeships, internships and basic business management and sales skills should be free – as are our public grade schools and high schools. Some may later matriculate to a college degree, while most others would become better prepared for our nation’s blue collar and middle management white collar work force.

Colleges and universities who are tax exempt institutions and possessed of massive endowment funds from tax free donations and research grants should be compelled to provide scholarships at least equal to the tax they would pay if they were “for profit” institutions receiving the grants and donations.

Those students who opt to take the student loan route to graduation should have an option to amortize that debt by government service over a time equal to their college years, perhaps as tax deductions against earned income. The GI Bill worked wonders after World War II for the veterans who had their lives disrupted.

For those who still fail to find a means to repay their student loans after a reasonable period of time and effort to do so, personal bankruptcy should be an option. The main object of personal bankruptcy is to give that person a fresh start in life. We all deserve that. We no longer have debtor prisons and fought a Civil War to abolish slavery. As a Judeo-Christian nation, forgiveness is part of our DNA.

Bernie Sanders has focused our attention on the student loan problems. However, Bernie is once again out of the limelight of politics and he is now an old man. Hopefully, the student loan problem will remain on the agenda of our Federal and State governments. With hindsight, it is easy to see why Bernie’s socialist agenda attracted so many of our children and grandchildren to his campaign. Thank you, Bernie, for making student loans an issue, but stay out of our childrens’ lives with your Socialist agenda and let them strive for the American Dream.