Do We Treat College Students like Indentured Servants?

by Benjamin Studebaker

I recently heard someone compare the modern student experience in the United States to indentured service. This comparison seems hyperbolic on first analysis, but I want to take it seriously. To what extent, if any, is the process of taking out student loans or working unpaid internships similar to the experience of poor 18th century opportunity-seekers in the United States?

Back when I used to be on the debate team in high school, I had a big, fat copy of Black’s Law Dictionary. One of the admittedly sadistic joys of high school debate was to unearth my copy of this tome in the midst of an opponent’s speech, flip through it furiously, and give the impression that I was going to accuse him of having misused some term. I rarely did so, but the anticipation that I might would throw my opponent off his game. Today I find myself flipping through that same book to produce a comprehensive definition of what precisely an indentured servant is. Here’s what I’ve got:

A servant who contracted to work without wages for a fixed period in exchange for some benefit, such as learning a trade or cancellation of a debt or paid passage to another country, and the promise of freedom when the contract period expired. Indentured servitude could be voluntary or involuntary. A contract usually lasted from four to ten years, but the servant could terminate the contract sooner by paying for the unexpired time.

Emphasis added. This is not in and of itself precisely the same as the system by which students take out loans or undertake unpaid internships, but there are striking similarities.

How Student Loans are Similar to Indentured Service

A student who takes out a loan is contracting to repay the loan in the future with work of some kind in exchange for learning the modern equivalent of a trade. It is different from indentured service insofar as the student generally does not have to work for the person or institution from which he borrowed the money, but he must work for someone for a length of time determined by the size of the loan.

We frequently see college graduates pressured into accepting whatever jobs they can find right out of college because they have student loans debts that they must repay. While not quite as limiting as a system that compels them to work for a specific individual, the pressure of having to repay the debt limits their choice of employment, forcing them to take what jobs are available rather than wait and seek more optimal employment or choose to spend some amount of time after college travelling or doing volunteer work of some kind. Like indentured servants, college graduates must do work in exchange for education. They must also send some portion of the profits of that work to other people. In this very important sense, student loans are coercive in much the same way as indentured service was. The indentured servant has to work, and he has to work for the financial benefit of another in the same way that the college graduate does. The only difference is that the indentured servant works directly for the individual from whom he borrowed funds while the college graduate can work for a variety of individuals so long as he sends his wages to the individual or institution from whom he borrowed the funds.

The similarity is even more striking at the graduate level. Graduate programs often give their students funding rather than force them to take out loans, but in exchange for this funding, graduate students are expected to do unpaid labor as research and teaching assistants. Here the student not only has to give his wages to another individual or institution in exchange for learning a trade, but he must do the specific work the institution demands on behalf of that institution directly. PhD programs in the United States often take 2, 3, or even 4 times longer than DPhil programs in the United Kingdom in no small part because American programs require their grad students to provide them with much larger quantities of free labor. In a bizarre turn, this labor is then termed research or teaching “experience”, and becomes a requirement for getting a job as an academic, such that it is impossible to become an academic without first having participated in this scheme. Servitude of this kind is essentially made compulsory.

However, the most similar example is to be found is America’s military academies. These academies offer students an education in exchange for some number of years of military service after graduation. While graduate students did their unpaid labor while they learned a trade, and their unpaid labor was, at the very least, quite similar in content to what their trade itself consists of, students in military academies do their labor after they’ve finished learning their trade and may not see any immediate connection between their military service and the careers they trained for. This is most similar to the indentured servant who, though trained as a tailor, must work as a field hand for his benefactor. That said, to the military academies’ credit, I believe they do pay their graduates some amount of money for the military service they require from them.

How Unpaid Interns are like Indentured Servants

A student who takes an unpaid internship is agreeing to work for an individual or institution for free in exchange for being allowed to participate in that industry for pay in future. Here the industry in question has set itself up like a guild, demanding tribute from those who wish to join it in exchange for the privilege. In this way, these industries set up barriers to entry (to make working for free affordable, one either needs to be able to find time for a second job or to be independently wealthy) and reduce free-market competition within their fields.

Like an indentured servant, the unpaid intern learns a trade in exchange for doing unpaid labor for his benefactor for a fixed period of time. As in the cases above, our society views this as a process by which the intern gains “experience”, even though such experience could be gained in the course of actually doing the job for money.

Each of these cases is, to greater or lesser degrees, similar in some way to a system of servitude we nearly universally deplore as the near equivalent of the slave system, yet our culture wholly ignores these commonalities and treats students as though they are not entitled to the skills with which they hope to contribute to society, as though it is perfectly reasonable to compel students to labor for acquiring skills they intend to use to benefit others. Such a system discourages young people from undertaking socially beneficial kinds of work, encourages students to view their college education as a self-serving activity rather than as part of the wider social apparatus, and consequently contributes to a degradation in our social cohesion.

None of this is necessary. Before we had unpaid internships, young graduates would learn on the job and be paid for so doing. In many other countries, college education is paid for by the state rather than by the individual seeking to benefit himself and his community. On both the left and the right, we frequently hear complaints that society is fragmenting, that there is a lack of social cohesion, of communitarianism. Yet is that no small wonder, when we treat individuals who are seeking to learn skills with which they would benefit others like unworthy parasites? Surely there is no faster way to alienate an individual from his society and set him firmly in opposition to his fellow man, and for having done so, we are foolish.