SJ Quinney College of Law, University of Utah


The swirl of concerns about and criticisms of the cost of higher education and the debt burdens taken on by students masks a deeper confusion over the goals student aid should pursue and over reforms to enable achievement of those goals. This Article explores how the rhetoric used in public discussion of college cost and student borrowing can get in the way of what would be a difficult but critically important debate over goals. Higher education is a personal, private “investment” that must be “worth it” to the student; student “aid,” flexible loan repayment plans, even debt forgiveness, all aim to make the financing of this investment easier but also may “unfairly favor” certain career choices over others. The very words used in these descriptions have consequences for how higher education is understood. They invoke assumptions about the values higher-education policy should pursue and get in the way of seeing choices implicitly already made, choices that should be explicitly analyzed and debated. Reform efforts in this area will turn on politics—a field highly susceptible to rhetoric—and ignoring the implications of choices of words runs a grave risk of foreclosing possibilities.