I'm one of the fortunate ones. I emerged from college and grad school without accumulating any debt, owing less to my scrimp-and-save moxie than to parents who were willing to do just about anything – cut tuition checks, endow classics departments, build cross-campus monorails, whatever - to get me out of the house. And while my first few jobs may have teetered on the cusp of indentured servitude, especially in their implicit adverbs-for-cubicle-sanctuary promise, the absence of debt allowed me to spend my post-rent dollars on taffy and iToys. Again, I was very lucky. I do not lose sight of this.
But in the [mumbles into sleeve, sounds air horn] years since I completed my education, costs have spiraled way the hell out of control, to the extent that I'm already bracing myself for my infant son's cost-effective pursuit of a career in the sweeping of chimneys. That's why we need more web resources like the ones rolled out earlier this week by the National College Finance Center and more video-intensive campaigns like "Don't Major In Debt." Using simple terms (and often simple math), both programs break down the largely theoretical nature of college loans for a generation of grads, students and would-be matriculants who might not understand the potential heft of their debt burden.
The campaign enjoys a little celebrity cachet courtesy of Jane Lynch, who backstops her involvement with a play on her Glee teacher/loon. But the real value comes in the form of simple, casually rendered testimonials from recent and soon-to-be graduates. We hear from Travis, who calculates that he goes $1.25 deeper into debt with every passing hour, and from Shannon, who describes the urgency she feels to address a situation that could quickly devolve into a personal-finance apocalypse. Best, we hear from Joshua, who describes what it takes to come out on the other side.
Rather than bemoan their inability to travel and purchase shiny items, the three students address their situations unemotionally. In essence, they say, "Here's my circumstance. Take from it what you will." It's a smart approach, one that should awaken would-be education debtors to the true cost of borrowing more powerfully than would an in-your-face approach. Nobody needs an overdramatization of goony debt collectors showing up on the doorstep of petite post-grads, accompanied by a "read the fine print, son" voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson or some such badass.
Still, I can't help but wish the campaign was a little more expansive in its thinking. Of the testimonial videos, all feature graduates with degrees that don't exactly make 21st century employers feel all tingly downstairs (television writing, literature, performance studies). Maybe this will come in future installments, but it'd be interesting to hear from someone with a degree in a career-bait area of study - statistics, say, or one that pairs cash-register words like "biomedical" or "petroleum" with "engineering."
I also wish the campaign would add a splash of humor - maybe in the form of a slap-some-sense-into-that-square-head-of-yours component, which could be delivered by an overeducated, overcaffeinated classics grad. "Listen, idiot, you can follow your chocolate rainbow ponytail dreams or you can afford rent and fresh vegetables. Don't make the same mistakes I did, no matter how intellectually rewarding 'Monologue, Mockery and Modernism: Semantic Recontextualization on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart' might sound to you as a 19-year-old hemp enthusiast." Etc.
These mini-quibbles (quiblettes?) aside, "Don't Major in Debt" ranks as one of the worthier and most tonally precise PSA campaigns in some time. The clips inform without resorting to scare tactics and dispense advice without filtering it through peanut-gallery-caliber chatter. I'm zipping it over to every 16-year-old in my extended family/friend network; I hope you'll do the same.