As universities never tire of pointing out, education is more than the mere transmission of knowledge. It is about formation. Professors and administrators all impressed this upon me often during my years as an undergraduate and later at seminary. At Baylor, a Baptist institution, this took the form of weekly chapel services and university-sponsored mission trips. At Duke Divinity School, students gathered regularly in “spiritual formation groups.” Formation at both institutions meant not just studying but developing habits, disciplining desires, and living in a community of supportive people in order to foster a particular character.

It worked. My university studies made me who I am by shaping how I approach not only my pastoral work but also politics, economics, race, gender, sexuality, and society.

Yet my university experiences also formed me in other, less obvious ways. They made me into a person whose life choices – from which job to take, to how many children to have – are in large part determined by my student debts.

We don’t often talk of the formative nature of debt in the same way we do in regard to other educational experiences. But just as education is about more than funneling information into students’ brains, indebtedness is about more than the transfer of money. Universities rarely address the aspect of higher education that may most powerfully shape students’ futures: the debt they take on to finance it.

A few hours spent watching promotional videos for universities, whether public or private, illustrates the point. These commercials display a remarkable consistency. Wide shots of buildings chosen to match what prospective students presumably imagine a campus to look like; a montage of student athletes competing; an articulate voiceover offering an inspiring narration about students finding themselves. There’s always an image of teenagers studying in a library. In these commercials, almost without exception, universities tout the difference that their graduates make in the world. They rarely mention future earnings.

Visually, they relay this message of empowerment by including as many scenes outside the classroom as inside. They convince students that university education serves not just to help them get a leg up in the market, but to shape them into particular kinds of people for the sake of a common future. In the words of the University of Alabama website, this goal is an education that “produces socially-conscious, ethical and well-rounded leaders who are grounded in their subject matter and capable of controlling their own destinies.”

Margaret McWethy, Jif. Images reproduced by permission from Margaret McWethy

It’s a grand vision that echoes a tradition stretching back to Plato. However, those espousing it rarely seem to reckon with the possibility that students’ debts might prohibit them from ever being “capable of controlling their own destinies.”

Debt forms us just as radically as a university curriculum does. As bills mount, debt becomes a guiding force in our lives, directing our decisions about where to live, where to work, how to save and spend, and what we imagine possible. The anxiety, regret, and shame over one’s inability to determine one’s own life shapes our souls as well. In a deeply moving essay in The Baffler, M. H. Miller describes his working-class family’s struggles with the $120,000 in debt they assumed to enable him to attend New York University: “The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives.” If student debt forms us in this way, we’d do well to ask what kind of formation it is.

Student debt occupies a prominent place in the US economy. In 2018, Americans carried $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. The average 2016 graduate had $37,000 in loans. Forty-four million Americans have student loans, meaning roughly one quarter of the population is shaped and formed by the monthly payment they must make.

All debt forms us, but it’s important to recognize how student debt shapes our conception of ourselves and our society.

All debt forms us, but it’s important to recognize how student debt shapes our conception of ourselves and our society in a way different than other ways one can owe money. Credit card debt or payday loans, for example, often result from emergencies. Car loans are a rent for needed transportation. We can leverage mortgage debt for wealth building. For all our grand visions of education and formation, when it comes to finances we usually talk about how student loans enable a borrower to attain a professional qualification that moves them into a higher income bracket. In a capitalist society in which every choice requires a financial calculation, looking at student debt as a matter of calculated choices forms us in distinct ways that warrant our attention.