Personal Responsibility (Or Not)

5 Mar

Written after seeing a handful of reports on Facebook.

One of the main problems with our current society – in both Britain and America – is the conviction that you simply cannot rise very high without a college/university degree. This is absurd – my old job at a university library was one I could have handled before spending three years at university – but it seems that most employers are reluctant to change. On one hand, I see their point; someone prepared to spend three years studying [whatever] is likely to be motivated to do well; on the other hand, just how useful are the university courses in preparing someone for real life?

However, most youngsters go to college/university … and, because these places tend to cost money, they take out loans to go. And that is where the trouble starts.

I’ve blogged before about the difficulty in paying off my student loans when I had the money to do it (a problem caused by bureaucratic stupidity). It was a great deal harder to think about them when I was working for minimum wage, unable to pay off even the merest fraction of my debts. Those loans would have followed me for the rest of my life, if I had not managed to pay them off. Students who are unable to pay them off will have them overshadowing the rest of their lives.

This is no idle matter. Credit ratings and other such issues depend on how well you repay money you borrow. Most people just entering the job market earn minimum wage and wind up living hand to mouth. (Assuming a bare minimum wage, a person in the UK would earn roughly £1100 per month.) If you happen to want to buy something expensive – a car, a house, a computer, etc – you are going to need a loan. Bankers are not going to issue loans to people who have a poor credit rating – and having student loans depresses your credit rating. This is common sense. If you borrow money, you have an obligation to REPAY that money; if you don’t repay it, you cannot claim to be surprised when no one agrees to loan you MORE money.

I write this because of a link forwarded to me about a student loan strike. To sum up a long story, a number of students of Corinthian Colleges (a degree mill in the United States) have basically stated that they intend to refuse to repay their loans. Their manifesto states that they blame Corinthian for their problems (a quick look at Wikipedia told me that Corinthian degrees are not universally accepted in the USA) and that they will not be paying back the money they owe.

They had a bad experience, I’ll grant them that, and I am not unsympathetic, but there are two problems with their stance.

The first is that they probably don’t owe money to Corinthian, which is a degree mill, but to lenders who leant them the money in good faith. Yes, they probably were taken advantage of, yet it was not the people who leant them the money who took advantage of them. The mere fact that their educational experience was bad doesn’t change the fact that they accepted an obligation to repay the loans.

Look at it this way. If you buy a new car at £15’000, taking out a loan to do so, and you crash it the day you take it home from the garage, you are still responsible for paying back that loan even though you crashed the car. There is no such thing as a free lunch. You borrowed the money and now you have to repay it, even though the car is totalled.

The second is that they didn’t do anything resembling due diligence before signing up with Corinthian. If a simple glance at the universally-accessible Wikipedia is enough to raise red flags, a student searching for a prospective place to study should know to be careful and check what he or she was being told before signing on the dotted line. Once again, the lenders are not responsible for staggeringly bad judgement shown by students who really should be old enough to know better.

To go back to the car analogy, if you purchase a car that turns out to be a lemon, you cannot complain to the bank that loaned you the money you used to buy it. Check out everything BEFORE you sign a paper that commits you to repaying a loan.

But there is another point that should be borne in mind.

The students are almost certainly unable to pay, not just unwilling. (It might take some readers a while to see this, as their letter practically screams entitlement.) You cannot really get blood from a stone, nor can you tap someone living hand-to-mouth for money they don’t have. Leaving someone to literally starve to death because they cannot pay their way isn’t smart, not if they owe you thousands of dollars. Their death or absence from the job market will leave the bag in lender’s hands.

So tell me … why are lenders still lending to students?

I’ve seen nothing in my career, either as a librarian or a writer, that suggests that college/university degrees are actually important. Much of my university course could reasonably have been compressed down to a single year, with a little effort. Indeed, if half the stories I hear about American colleges are true, less politics and social justice would probably ensure that more students wound up with usable degrees.

My very strong advice? Learn to take some responsibility for your own life and choices. Decide what you want to do with your life, then plan your educational journey to work towards that goal. Investigate each college thoroughly and don’t let yourself get attached to any of them until you know they’re good and their students go on to good jobs. Don’t take out money unless you are prepared to pay it back – and you believe that you WILL be able to pay it back before it blows your credit rating out of the water. And don’t be afraid to jump ship and complain if your lecturers are unqualified/politically minded/useless.

And don’t blame others, no matter how easy they seem to hit, for problems you caused yourselves.

37 Responses to “Personal Responsibility (Or Not)”

  1. utabintarbo March 5, 2015 at 6:40 pm #

    Personal responsibility has been systematically “bred out” of many. After all, it is difficult to control those who realize that they are ultimately responsible for making their own way through life.

    I weep for the future.

    • Duncan Cairncross March 9, 2015 at 12:05 am #

      “Personal responsibility has been systematically “bred out” of many.”

      How in heavens name can this be true?
      We are two generations from the people who defeated Hitler
      The people who built and flew spitfires,

      How can we make that sort of change in only a few generations –
      We can’t
      The people now that you are disparaging are the SAME as the greatest generation

      What has happened is that the 0.1% has stolen the fruits of our and our fathers labor

      • Steven March 9, 2015 at 12:10 am #

        You are two generations away from the Russians?

      • Duncan Cairncross March 9, 2015 at 2:36 am #

        Hi Steven
        “You are two generations away from the Russians?”

        After Hitler lost the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic he had lost the war
        The Russians did the heavy lifting at the end but was a foregone conclusion

  2. Jack Hudler March 5, 2015 at 7:29 pm #

    Your Corinthian tale reminds of that ‘Void Mortgage’ scam that was running around in England a few years ago. They refused to pay on there mortgage because someone told them their loan contract was invalid unless signed by the lender. Really sad that people don’t get it.

  3. Jack Hudler March 5, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    Lenders still lend to students (at least here in the states) because the loan is backed by the government. They know they’re going to get their money eventually.

  4. Caleb March 5, 2015 at 7:42 pm #


  5. Caleb March 5, 2015 at 7:42 pm #

    Seriously I want to see your version of atlas shrugged.

  6. pbabby March 5, 2015 at 9:46 pm #

    I think that one of the biggest problems, in addition to the perception that you need a college to degree to succeed, is the idea of entitlement that students have regarding getting what they want. As you mentioned in your essay, students needed to perform their due diligence in researching their college choice(s). My one hope, from the Corinthian protest, is that students who are starting to look at college opportunities will happen upon the story and decide to do a little more research.

    Secondly, I have an audible account and have enjoyed listing to the Ark Royal Trilogy during my long commute. Do you have any plans to record the Schooled in Magic series for audible?

    • chrishanger March 7, 2015 at 8:17 am #

      I’ve tried to get a producer interested in doing SIM audio books, but no luck so far.


      Sent from my iPad


  7. Duncan Cairncross March 5, 2015 at 11:07 pm #

    As somebody who got his degree in the 70’s I do have a couple of thoughts
    (1) A lot of graduates think having a degree means they are in the top 10% (of intelligence) or so
    It does NOT – it actually it means that they are probably NOT in the bottom 10%

    I have worked with a number of people who were being kept below a ceiling because they didn’t have degrees
    Some people do mature a bit later and going to university at 18 does not suit everybody

    Having graduated in the 70’s I had the advantage of the “Grant” system which IMHO is the BEST way to go

    This business about loans is simply a way of keeping poor people (most of us) out of higher education

    I notice that Germany – whose economy is in a good place and has much lower inequality has free higher education

    • Mike46 March 8, 2015 at 7:20 pm #

      The stories I’ve read about Germany’s free public universities are that it’s a very different environment to the USA universities. Here is the link to a candid look at the differences.

      • Duncan Cairncross March 8, 2015 at 7:41 pm #

        They look GREAT!
        The American fascination with organized sports is schools and universities is like trying to swim with an anchor around your necks.

        I went to Glasgow Uni – 10,000 Scots – NO JOCKS

        In the USA a small high school has more sports facilities than a large university in Scotland

        Schools and especially University are for education – professional team sports are a whole different animal

  8. Dennis the Menace March 6, 2015 at 1:35 am #

    Credentialism is strong in peoples minds as equating with actual knowledge and competence one would reasonably expect of one having said credentials, that’s why.

    In the US, it is also legal protection for companies to hire people based on credentials since the Supreme Court declared that determining employment/promotion criteria based on testing was a civil rights violation.

  9. Steven March 6, 2015 at 1:51 am #

    OK Chris the example of getting a loan on a car and crashing it would be more accurate to this topic if the car crashed because of faulty brakes.
    The law would specifically protect the buyer from their “responsibility”, just like the law (partially) protects from predatory lending practices.
    Also you are criticising these higher education consumers for not performing due diligence but we are talking about seventeen and eighteen year olds. Fact is the finance companies take a risk when lending money and charge a more than high enough level of interest as a result, this is just the foreseen risk taking place.

    • Duncan Cairncross March 6, 2015 at 3:46 am #

      I agree with Steven
      If I wanted to buy a car or a house the lender would want to know a bit about it
      To make sure that I was not going to lose my money (and probably stop paying)
      If I was going to spend a large amount of money on education I would expect the lender to have an interest and as a large company more knowledge about the “vender” than I would
      From that point of view the lender shares some blame if the deal goes bad

    • Jack Hudler March 6, 2015 at 7:30 am #

      Are you saying that if someone crashes a car due to faulty brakes, that they are absolved of paying back the loan? If so, then it’s wrong. If I personally loan someone the money (not that I would ever do such a stupid thing), I expect it to be paid back. This is why loans require insurance to be maintained.

      • Duncan Cairncross March 6, 2015 at 8:47 am #

        Hi Jack
        If you “colluded” with a car dealer to loan money to a novice in order to sell a dodgy car then you would have some responsibility

        And that is actually quite common!

        If you lent somebody money to buy a house, using the house as security without checking it’s condition………

        Yes people do need to take responsibility for their actions BUT we must also be aware of the con men and sharks out there

      • Jack Hudler March 6, 2015 at 9:52 am #

        Hi Duncan,
        Collusion is Fraud which can be both civil and criminal can be used to nullify the loan. Still having the loan nullified doesn’t mean you get to keep the property.

        If a buyer didn’t do due diligence during the purchase, it can be very difficult to prove seller malice.

        Having said; all lending has an inherent risk, but in the final analogy the borrower assumes the largest portion of the liability, especially if a lawyer/solicitor becomes involved.

        Getting back to the faulty brakes scenario. After insurance has payed for damages, you still have to prove the origin of the faulty brakes either via litigation, or arbitration (in the states; using lemon laws which can be quite difficult) before you can expect additional third-party compensation. During all this, you’re still responsible for settling the loan, regardless of any compensation.

        In the end it comes down to the subject line ‘Personal Responsibility’, even if you have to chuff it out/eat it in the end.

  10. Duncan Cairncross March 6, 2015 at 10:15 am #

    Hi Jack
    I agree – except Fraud is such a definite state, there are things short of “fraud”
    Not sure where you are or what the rules are there
    Here (NZ)
    Most contracts for big items have a built in “cool-down” period
    So if a salesman persuades you to sign up for double glazing you have a week to change your mind

    it’s not considered a “fair” bargain if some high pressure salesman has badgered some poor pensioner into signing

    We are less sympathetic to a teenager being conned into a similar situation

    When I lived in the USA I received at least one letter each week offering me some sort of credit – should we allow the predatory to pray on the gullible?

  11. Jack Hudler March 6, 2015 at 10:44 am #

    Wow the last word ‘gullible’ really hit home for me.
    You see I have Asperger’s Syndrome or High Functioning Autism (depending on which ‘expert’ you’re talking to).
    We represent the epitome of gullible. Yes I’ve been taken advantage of, yes I’ve been gullible. But I’ve never used my situation as an excuse. It may explain the behavior, but never used as an excuse. It’s a rabbit hole that I can’t allow myself to step in.

    Knowing myself, I’m always on guard and I make use of professional help. I use a lawyer when I purchasing a home, this small fee has saved me orders of magnitude over the fee.
    There’s no way I could get through closing with all those people and sensory overload without safety net of a lawyer. In fact I don’t know how neurotypicals do it.
    I never purchase a car on the spot and if pressured to buy anything I get up and walk out.

    Being personally responsible for my life isn’t always easy, but it’s all I have, and it’s the core of my integrity.

    If you’ve ever read the Vaz novel by Laurence Dahners you’d have a pretty good idea of what my life is like.


    • Steven March 6, 2015 at 10:51 am #

      Hi Jack

      I am happy to hear that you have developed coping strategies to protect yourself but I must ask – did these take time to develop and was there a period when you were very young where you have could have been sold onto a very large debt much like these students?

      • Jack Hudler March 6, 2015 at 11:24 am #

        Could I have? Yep no doubt, but then I didn’t know I had Asperger’s. I coped like anyone else then, I suppose. I might have groused about it and muttered a few expletives, same as you, but in the end I did what I do now; suck it up and learn, move on.

        Now I’m much more on guard. Everything I thought I knew about how I interacted with others was wrong, so I had to relearn myself (where’s my spaceship so I can get off this planet!). Are there still periods when I succumb to gullibility? Yep, only they are few and far between now, and usually over some bit of kit that I suddenly fancied.

        I recently wanted to try a new career in the culinary arts. I took out the grants and student loans which were government guaranteed. Then I had a heart attack and later thyroid cancer. Suddenly the equations changed, or I should say my life expectancy and physical abilities changed. I can no longer expect to live long enough to reach a level of experience/income to pay off those loans. Fortunately I hadn’t started college, and thankfully incurred no encumbrances, guaranteed though they may be.

    • Dennis the Menace March 6, 2015 at 7:03 pm #

      I read Vaz..which is why I am a bit confused.

      Vaz the character wouldn’t have written like you write your post, I believe. Would you characterize Vaz’s Asperger’s is more severe than your’s?

      Just wondering.

      Btw, I loved the Vaz novel. Teoni (the sequel) was great too.

      Chris — I realize that you get people ‘telling you’ that you should read this or that all the time. But in this case, if you haven’t read Vaz I think you really should, if only because of the uniqueness of it in sci fi genre.

      • Jack Hudler March 6, 2015 at 8:52 pm #

        ‘Dennis the Menace’ my favorite newspaper comic growing up :).
        Chris, I’ll second Dennis’s remark, it’s a must read.

        Asperger’s is an Autistic Spectrum Disorder; though I detest ‘disorder’, there’s nothing wrong with me, I just think different from NT’s. We are sometimes referred as ‘On the spectrum’, which might help explain why people have tough time dealing with the spectrum’s somewhat disparate elements.
        I could never talk like I write if we were face to face, and even less so if it’s more than the two of us.
        My son is also on the spectrum. We haven’t tested where he is, but I know it’s high enough that any further testing would not really help. He also attends a primary school.

        I’ll use my son and me for examples. My son is somewhat intolerant of loud noises, while I am not. I’m a risk taker, my son is not (yet). He can thoroughly trounce me in words games at his level.
        The differences are many and yet the similarities are just as striking. I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I knew seconds after he was born that he was on the spectrum, I whispered in his minutes old ear; hello my little Aspy, and congratulations, boy are we going to have a lot of fun! We do! He’s 8 years and is walking home by himself right now. Today we are programming a mod for his favorite game, unless something else distracts him, and that’s ok too.

        Vaz: Difficult to say how Vaz would have written. He has a PhD which should say a lot about his vocabulary, and the writer is using what is to me a lose narrative form around him.

  12. Yanai Siegel March 8, 2015 at 7:02 am #

    We’ve wandered quite a bit from the topic of owning up to personal responsibility for student loans, or in fact any debt.

    There are no shortage of rationales presented to attempt to shift responsibility. “I’m not responsible for signing these papers, no one told me I needed to read before signing…”

    Yes, there are occasions for fraud. Student loans, however, generally are put under a microscope in the U.S., but it is up to the person signing to not only decide whether the consequences of signing are worth the benefit, but to do some basic research on whether the purchase (whether it’s a car or a college education) is worth the cost.

    In New Jersey, USA, there is a “lemon” law for used cars… put in place because chronic issues with a used car may not be immediately apparent.

    For college loans, a student signs EACH YEAR for that year’s loans to cover tuition costs. That’s not one “bad” decision, but at least four.

    “But they’re only just kids… that’s why they’re going to college, right? To get an education?”

    Where are their parents? Their guardians? Their advisors, whether high school guidance counselors or in the community? Or is it because a particular student disdained getting advice, and could not be bothered to do the research?

    Admittedly, hindsight generally is clearer than foresight (albeit only if one looks back). But “student loan” protests? That’s not punishing the college at all. And the consequences for the students’ credit histories (and financial future) will damn those students for years thereafter. Maybe those protesters should blame the organizers for that too…

    Or perhaps they should consider how they alone are responsible for the consequences of their own actions… and consider asking for help in reviewing their options and choices, BEFORE they sign on the dotted line.

    • Duncan Cairncross March 8, 2015 at 7:35 am #

      How old are you Yanai?

      Did you have to get a student loan or did the government pay for your education?

      Most of the decision makers (and me) had direct government assistance in our education

      I think it is appalling that people of my age who had free education should be criticizing the modern generation that is NOT getting free education

      • Yanai Siegel March 8, 2015 at 2:58 pm #


        I’m glad to hear that you had a free education. While I’m old enough to have received a PELL Grant (in US) for about 10-15% of my college costs, I worked at multiple jobs before and during college for years and borrowed my way through the rest. And then I went to graduate school part-time while working full time, and then to law school full time while working part time. That’s three college degrees. And I paid back every cent I borrowed, even when one of the banks got creative about misfiling paperwork and effectively forced me to pay back loans while I was still in school. And yes, I also did get scholarships… but I did not finish paying off my loans until I was 32 and married.

        My wife only had two degrees (I’m recently widowed), but also needed loans to pay for college, and also paid them back in full.

        I now have two kids, one of whom is starting college next year and the other not long after. My wife and I saved up for their college education longer than either has been alive, and both of them are very well aware of their financial responsibilities to pay back what they borrow, and to make every dollar spent on education mean something, especially in honor and memory of their mother.

        “Appalling” is the word to use to provide any scintilla of justification to those who prefer to avoid responsibility for their actions. Take responsibility for your own actions in what you say, and realize that there are those of us who worked extremely hard at multiple jobs over many years to pay for college, and see nothing wrong with holding today’s college students to their word.

        After all, it was on their word they received the money in the first place.

        This is a test of integrity and character. Fail at your peril. Civilization is built on trust, at every level, by each of us.

  13. Mike46 March 8, 2015 at 7:37 pm #

    As a current and past student, who has earned and used 2 associate of science degrees and is finally pursuing a Bachelors, I can say that everything mentioned about personal responsibility is accurate. If you borrow the money you repay the money. However saying you don’t need a degree to get some where is only partially true. There are very real blockades to those without degrees, which is not saying that the degree is needed to perform the job, just required by those who are offering the job. Some manage to get past them and make very real “progress” in their careers, most however end up stuck in one position with no upward potential.

    Slightly off topic but related, regarding the rising costs of university attendance. What is often not stated in most discussions about rising costs of College are the types of degrees students are getting, i.e. History VS Engineering, and the earning potential in those fields vs the cost of the degree. A second thing that is rarely discussed is the growth of the universities from say the 70’s too day. If an University offered say 30 different majors in 1970 the cost of operating that business would be much less than that same university offering 130 different majors today. I have not been able to find any information the chances in numbers and types of degrees offered by universities over the last few decades.

    Over all it’s a complicated topic, with no easy answers or fixes, that ties closely into personal responsibility, changes in job market requirements, and cultural changes.

  14. Jack Hudler March 8, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

    I quit school in the ninth grade in 1975, I went out the next day and took my GED in 20 minutes.
    It wasn’t long after I started making good money as a FCC licensed radio tech. Once I’d taught myself computer programming, I started making (IMO) ridiculous amounts.
    Before I was forced to retire from that industry, I never made less than $200k, with a few years exceeding $450k and I never went into management (an Aspy in management! NOT!).
    Don’t mistake this as bragging. In fact I didn’t care how much the job offered, only what the project was, which seems typical for Aspy’s. In fact there were jobs were I’d have done for free, just because it was so much fun.

    I accomplished this without ever stepping foot in a university.

    I did run across jobs where the prospective employer refuse to believe my CV, not even bother to verify it, and I even had one call me a liar to my face. Which I simply replied; “Well this was a waste of time, i don’t really need your money anyway, just liked the project,” got up and left. Some interviews became hostile when they realized I didn’t have a degree in anything. Those I just harumph, got up and left without a word.

    In hind sight I wish I had some college, there were at times solutions to problems that I knew existed in advanced mathematics.

  15. Foolish Pride March 8, 2015 at 10:58 pm #

    Why do you need a college degree for so many jobs?

    Because you can’t test for IQ. In the US at least the US Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to hire based on IQ tests. What is a college degree? A proxy for intelligence.

    I imagine the situation isn’t that different in Albion.

    • Jack Hudler March 8, 2015 at 11:58 pm #

      Dose that include psychological testing?

  16. Austin March 10, 2015 at 4:20 am #

    I recently graduated from one of the top public universities in the US with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Thankfully, it was in state tuition which means I payed a very reduced price for it and I got out with very little in the way of debt. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a degree mill and 10 being the best university undergrad program in the nation, I’d say mine was an 8.5.

    And I still learned more in my first month of work than I did in any two semesters. It’s not that they don’t teach you anything, it’s that many of the classes are filled with fluff or designed to give you a “well rounded experience.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a heart surgeon working on me who took an extra physiology class than one on decomposing 19th century post-reconstruction American literature. I personally wish I had been able to take half a dozen classes with more practical applications over the ones I ended up taking.

    Or, I could have taken all those hours of unnecessary classes and used the time to finish a year earlier, thereby saving myself thousands of dollars in tuition, room, and board while also opening up resources for someone else to study. The same applies to dozens of other majors. Because I know I could have learned so much more since I already have over the past few months.

    And now I just went off on a tangent and I can’t remember exactly where I was originally going. I guess it’s just kind of a rant. Hope nobody minds too much.

    • Duncan Cairncross March 10, 2015 at 4:46 am #

      That’s an American University
      The UK does not do that,
      When I went to Glasgow to study engineering I did take an Astronomy course – was part of civil engineering back then surveying position using the stars was still useful
      And an Ocean studies course – had a piece of ship stability – but I did not need and would not have been permitted to do any arts courses

      There are arguments for and against – I come down on the idea that a technical course should be just that – if you want to know “fluff” so it afterwards

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