A couple of days ago, Beckie Supiano wrote an article for Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “What Does $1-Trillion in Student Debt Really Mean? Maybe Not That Much,” which suggested that the nation's massive student-loan debt is no big deal. Some of the people cited in Supiano’s article apparently believe that student-loan indebtedness is fundamentally different from the home-mortgage crisis because education, unlike a mortgaged home, has intrinsic value that does not diminish over time.
For example, Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, described student-loan debt as "good debt". In fact, Carnevale maintained, “This is exactly the kind of debt a society wants.”
Mr. Carnevale’s perspective on student loans would be correct if all students received good value when they borrowed money to obtain a college education. But, as everyone knows, millions of people have borrowed money to pursue post-secondary education and did not see their lives improve in any meaningful way. A person who borrows $100,000 to obtain a degree in religious studies, winds up working as a waitress, and defaults on her student loans does not have the kind of debt society wants. That kind of debt is not “good debt”.
Furthermore, contrary to some of the views expressed in the Supiano article, the student-loan crisis is very similar to the home-mortgage crisis. In fact, student loans have probably caused more human suffering than the home-mortgage meltdown. People who own homes worth less than their mortgages are certainly under stress. But at least these people have roofs over their heads, and they own tangible assets. Furthermore, home-mortgage holders who are financially unable to pay their monthly mortgage payments can discharge their mortgages in bankruptcy.
In contrast, people who took out student loans to obtain a college education did not obtain anything tangible except their diplomas, and many did not receive the skills or training from their experience that would enable them to obtain good-paying jobs or otherwise improve their lives. Many people who borrowed substantial amounts of money to obtain degrees in such fields as art history, religious studies, sociology and anthropology are in real financial trouble because they can’t find employment that compensates them enough to pay off their student loans.
Furthermore, unlike homeowners who have unmanageable mortgages, most overburdened student-loan debtors cannot discharge their loans in bankruptcy. Although they can obtain deferments on their loan payments if they can show economic hardship, interest on their loans will continue to accrue in most instances, increasing the size of their debt
In short, to suggest that the nation’s $1 trillion in accumulated student-loan debt is not a serious problem shows a profound lack of understanding about the tremendous suffering that millions of student-loan debtors are experiencing. There are lots of things we can do to get the student-loan crisis under control, but we should begin by providing meaningful relief to overburdened student-loan debtors who have no reasonable prospect of ever paying off their student loans.
Supiano, B. (2012, May 16). What Does $1-Trillion in Student Debt Really Mean? Maybe Not That Much. Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/article/What-Does-1-Trillion-Mean-/131900/?key=TWwidAI8byUVbHBhYDpAbj4AaH0%2BMUp2YydBPX4rblpXGQ%3D%3D.