The New Rust Belt in the Fenway, Cambridge

By Phineas J. Stone

Loans only work when they’re paid back, and when they’re not paid – the whole system runs dry.

It has surprised me few people in Boston have paid attention to the alarming rate of default/deferral on student loans, which I believe I read last December had been revised to more than 50 percent. While many are quick to believe that the for-profit colleges – the Everest Institutes – are mostly to blame, we all know that in reality young people aren’t paying their loans.

Some pay a little here, and a little there. Maybe they make a payment, maybe they don’t.

Some simply don’t believe they should have to pay once the bills start to arrive. Out of some odd sense of social justice, they defer or simply ignore those bills.

It’s just not a priority to them as it was to me.

I paid student loans for decades, sometimes deferring family getaways to make large payments. I always had a sense of gratitude for having been given the opportunity to borrow money in order to go to college – which few in my family got to do in the past. They were nice enough to allow me to borrow, and I felt it my duty to reciprocate with on-time payments that went on for many years after college.

Today’s generation has no such tie that binds.

I get a feeling they believe one day they’ll just be absolved of the burden if they continue to ignore it, and if enough of them ignore their payments, they’ll create a crisis. Once crisis is reached, someone else will come in and pay it all off.

An education isn’t really something that can be repossessed, unfortunately.

Most of the discussion on this issue in the media – though it’s been scant – has been about taxpayer liability, and the adults in the room on this issue should be downright worried about those implications. We all know the young people are going to cruise, default on their loans, make a ton of money somewhere with no consequences and create another financial crisis that the rest of us will have to mop up.

I’m sure the young are worried…not.

All that said, the true tragedy here comes for a city like Boston that is so dependent on colleges and universities. Granted, we all know the institutions in this city don’t pay their fair share of taxes or community mitigation; that’s been going on for decades.

No, it’s not about tax revenue, but rather the janitors, secretaries, low-level professors, support staff and payroll electricians that all of these colleges and universities employ – people who live in Boston and make up a huge part of the professional workforce.

It is the loans paid by students that keeps that machine going in Boston, in part.

If the trend to not pay continues, the government won’t be willing to be in the student loan business any longer.

It will all go to the private market, and far fewer students will qualify.

Enrollments will drop. Campuses and their programs will shrink and concentrate.

Staff cuts will be inevitable.

The Harvards of the world won’t be affected much, but the mid-tier schools like Emmanuel, Simmons, Suffolk and others – where borrowing to pay the freight is necessary – will not survive in their current configuration.

What do we do with 400 or 500 secretaries who no longer have a desk or a place where they have worked so long? What do we do with all the stable, food service jobs these universities provide to the working class in Boston’s neighborhoods? Indirectly, these jobs prop up neighborhoods on the fringes and those that have come up from oblivion; they do it through these stable, good jobs.

Secretaries and staff electricians buy houses in Boston, and they take the T over to Fenway or Cambridge to go to work.

As we all know, such migration of work occurred in the upper Midwest, and they began to call the area the ‘Rust Belt.’ Workers saw their usefulness disappear in a matter of years due to things out of their control, and they never recovered there.

Without people honoring what they’ve taken – by paying the freight – our city might become the new Rust Belt.

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