Universities can shape their students for life – in more ways than one.

John Thornton:

As universities never tire of pointing out, education is more than the mere transmission of knowledge. It is about formation. Professors and administrators all impressed this upon me often during my years as an undergraduate and later at seminary. At Baylor, a Baptist institution, this took the form of weekly chapel services and university-sponsored mission trips. At Duke Divinity School, students gathered regularly in “spiritual formation groups.” Formation at both institutions meant not just studying but developing habits, disciplining desires, and living in a community of supportive people in order to foster a particular character.

It worked. My university studies made me who I am by shaping how I approach not only my pastoral work but also politics, economics, race, gender, sexuality, and society.

Yet my university experiences also formed me in other, less obvious ways. They made me into a person whose life choices – from which job to take, to how many children to have – are in large part determined by my student debts.

We don’t often talk of the formative nature of debt in the same way we do in regard to other educational experiences. But just as education is about more than funneling information into students’ brains, indebtedness is about more than the transfer of money. Universities rarely address the aspect of higher education that may most powerfully shape students’ futures: the debt they take on to finance it.