What are the mental and community health consequences when we burden students with debt?
Last week, Brad Bartelt, whose actions at Arkansas State University last December resulted in a campus lockdown that terrified students, faculty, and staff, was sentenced last week to 18 years in prison—a lifetime for many of our students. (He is, though, eligible for release in 4 ½ years if he’s a model prisoner.)
Bartelt could be in jail for the length of time many of our students been alive.
There is no defense for Bartelt’s actions, which traumatized and re-traumatized thousands of people. His attorney’s argument—that A-State overreacted by calling for an active shooter alert and lockdown rather than an armed intruder alert and then was too embarrassed to back off from the claim that Bartelt was a danger to others rather than just to himself—is ridiculous. If a man is going to jump off a tall building, maybe we can believe he’s a danger to only himself (and this ignores, of course, all the anxiety and worry and pain that witnessing a suicide would bring to others on campus and the stress that the officers and first responders would deal with), but if he is waving a gun around and threatening to shoot a propane tank, we have a possible threat to the lives of others that has to be addressed as such.
But there is a bigger story—one that doesn’t excuse his behavior but one that informs the choices he made. It’s also one familiar to many students.
Bartelt was a nontraditional student, an adult who was learning the truck driving trade in a short-term course of study at a branch campus of A-State. The background is easy enough to fill in. A man usually doesn’t head to truck driving school in his 40s if life is going well. And in that regard, he’s like a lot of public university students—eager to get the training and credentials that will lead to an improvement in their financial situation. It’s a pretty humble dream—but also the kind of thing that can dramatically improve a person’s life and change their whole family tree.
While in the one month training program, Bartelt was seriously injured, trapped under a truck in an accident that was entirely preventable but that caused a brain injury, according to his estranged wife. According to him, the branch campus agreed to pay his medical costs, then reneged. With his injury, he couldn’t continue his coursework, get his truck driving license, or do the work that would allow him to improve his situation. In addition to medical expenses—the main cause of bankruptcy in the US—he’s in considerable physical pain. We know that physical pain and depression are linked. Especially for men, the double blows of injury and job loss predict negative outcomes. For Bartelt, the good decision he made—to learn a trade—has had a terrible outcome.
He sued A-State Newport and won. Good for him. That didn’t take away his physical pain, of course.
Bartelt’s backstory is sad, really tragic, almost. Someone trying to do the right thing, in the framework that the university sets (Go to school! Get more education! Get a good job!) and gets hurt in that endeavor, then isn’t cared for until he sues. That is a set up for serious depression and deep anger.
The thing is, that situation is not so different from the one many college students face. They come from disadvantaged places. At A-State, nearly 50% of the students are Pell grant recipients, a measure of significant financial need. They are first generation students with dreams that their kids will be second generation college students and that their grandchildren will just assume that college is the norm. And, according to the most recent data, just over 40% of A-State students will graduate in six or fewer years; the overall graduate rate is 9% lower than the caliber of students would predict. They might not leave their education because of an injury sustained in the classroom, of course, but they leave for all kinds of reasons, some within their control and some not. And they leave with student loan debt and the earnings lost while they were in the classroom. We hope that even those not achieving graduation leave with some new knowledge and skills, but it’s hard to assess the value of credits earned without a degree. When our marketing stresses the importance of a degree for a well-paying job (rather than, say, its contribution to a well-informed citizenry), we are telling students that it’s the degree, not the education, that matters.
In other words, more than the majority of A-State students are like Bartelt—coming with dreams of changing their lives and leaving without a degree.
They are also suffering tremendous stress and living with mental illness. We worry about why college students today are less resilient than in the past, but the answers are pretty clear, if uncomfortable for those of us in higher ed: college is immensely more expensive than in the past, which means that you take a much higher risk in going. The outcome—a well-paying job—has to be on the horizon or else you don’t get a return on your investment, a fact that has dramatically shaped the lives of recent graduates for nearly 10 years now. Yet as more jobs include a college degree as a prerequisite, even when they can easily be performed by someone without a degree, the value of that degree is depressed—while continuing elitist hiring practices. At A-State, we regularly write job advertisements for administrative assistant and advising jobs that require a four year degree yet do not require the kind of skills you can find only among college graduates. These jobs, which require an education that costs more than $22,000 per year for four years, pay as little as $24,000. Raising job criteria in this way doesn’t make a college degree more valuable. It makes it less powerful to improve a person’s life.
This is not the short-term stress of finals week or the longer-term stress of a tough teacher or a hard class. It’s chronic stress that lasts the years you are in school and the many years it will take for you to pay back your student loans. Student loan debt causes mental health problems. And it’s not something solved by teaching people to be more “resilient.” It would take a real effort to reduce or remove the cause of that stress: the high cost of college.
Public universities, especially those with open admissions policies, have to be sensitive to this. In some ways, Arkansas State University is, with tuition relatively low compared to other universities. But tuition is still relatively high compared to what students can afford; 95% of A-State students use loans, grants, and scholarships to pay for school. In the meantime, we’re building new dorms with granite countertops and trying be a “destination university” (words that were a good clue Chancellor Hudson didn’t know or care about the needs of Arkansans) rather that building the infrastructure to support the students from the Delta who we are here to serve.
We have to be sensitive to this not only because so many of our students are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds but because so many of them come to us with mental health problems, putting them at greater risk for non-completion. It’s not just that we’re now prescribing anti-anxiety medication as often as anti-depressants for college students. It’s also that more elite universities are able to screen out those with untreated mental illness. High admissions requirements eliminates would-be students whose untreated mental illnesses have interfered with their ability to excel in school. (I’m not saying that all private school students are free from mental health problems. Of course they aren’t. I’m talking in broad terms here.) Public universities accept these students, knowing that they very often have untreated or undertreated mental health problems, many of them exacerbated by poverty. Indeed, college may present itself as one of the first opportunities those students have for treatment, especially if they are from rural areas. And while we’re building those fancy new “public-private partnership” dorms (which often cost students more money than a traditional dorm), our campus mental health services remain overwhelmed with student need.
None of this might explain particular Bartelt’s case, and none of it excuses his choices. Additionally, he seems mostly unrepentant, saying that he shouldn’t have brought this fight to A-State but to the social security office, which had recently denied a claim he’d made. That is a comment by someone really unthinking in regards to the pain he caused.
But Bartelt also seems remarkably like many of our students—student who are already in a fragile place, which is why they are coming to college in the first place, students who are poor, taking on great debt at great financial and health risk, aging out of opportunities to make their lives better, coming to us with mental health problems and not finding the services they need. Like Michael Douglass’s character in Falling Down, Bartelt was, in the words of Roger Ebert, living with “a great sadness which turns into madness, and which can afflict anyone who is told, after many years of hard work, that he is unnecessary and irrelevant.”
“Madness” here doesn’t have to mean mental illness. Bartelt was competent to stand trial. A significant portion of the college-aged population has a diagnosed mental illness, but they don’t come to campus waving anti-government flags and waving a gun. Indeed, people who are mentally ill are more likely than the general population to be victims of violence. and most mass shootings aren’t performed by people who are mentally ill. Only Bartelt is responsible for acting on his “madness” by terrorizing others, but I suspect the feelings that drove those actions are familiar to many students—especially the majority who leave without a degree.