Another day, another debt crisis.
Last Saturday, The New York Times published an article about the dangers of student loan debt from graduate school. Which graduate programs you ask? Surely law school, where reports of six-figure debts, unemployment or underemployment are commonplace. Perhaps a special on for-profit schools, institutions where approximately 86 percent of students receive federally subsidized loans. Not this time.
Last weekend, the buck was passed to veterinary schools, where a median cost of $63,000 a year far exceeds the average starting salary for students of the profession, a comparatively paltry $45,575 a year. While many people in this economy would be delighted to make that much money, it’s not much for someone who needs twice as much just to keep their head above water.
Much has been said in the last few years about the explosion of student loan debt. According to American Student Assistance, a nonprofit organization designed to assist students and their families with college financial planning, American college students have racked up somewhere close to $1 trillion in borrowing debts. Approximately 85 percent of this debt is owed to the federal government, while the remaining 15 percent is owed to private lenders.
Reforming the student loan system is an extraordinarily complicated issue that desperately needs to be dealt with. To do it right, policymakers will have to strike the right balance between personal responsibility and collective investment.
Very few people have sympathy for students who take on $200,000 in student loan debt to pursue four-year degrees in drama at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville – this sort of story inspires reactions along the lines of “What were they thinking?” and “This is why we can’t have nice things.” If this sort of tough love seems callous to you, then feel free to make a donation to their cause, but don’t ask the rest of the taxpaying public to join you.
At the same time, long-term investments in the quality of America’s work force are undoubtedly well worth (most of) the time and capital. There is a long, long list of smart, hard-working and motivated students who did not have the option of borrowing money from their parents when they graduated from high school. These individuals need assistance from the collective to climb the social ladder.
And don’t think these programs are simply a way to redistribute wealth from the very top to the very bottom. Children of middle and upper-middle class households draw on government loans to pursue degrees in biochemistry, journalism and nuclear engineering, fields that are (mostly) under-supplied, not under-demanded.
The beauty of living in a society valuing social mobility is that we create and support public programs which help people help themselves. But these programs have strayed too far, and today it is far too easy for well-intentioned 18-year-olds with a fatal lack of financial knowledge to make decisions that can haunt them for their entire lives.
As in any structural debt crisis, blame falls on both the lender and borrower. There need to be stricter limits for individuals borrowing six-figure sums and a higher degree of accountability for those granting the loans.
The most successful government program in the history of this country was the G.I. Bill, a program where men who made a substantial sacrifice upfront were rewarded with cheap loans they could use to buy a home, start a business or go to school. But this program was great specifically because it demanded real character-building sacrifice upfront. Today’s loan programs throw money at young adults and ask them to go develop their character on borrowed time and money. When they fail, for whatever reason, society bears the cost.
While college is still a great investment for individuals and for society, the law of diminishing returns is becoming a creeping reality. There’s an old saying that college is where you go to find yourself. That shouldn’t come at the cost of losing your future.
Nathaniel Olson ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science, history and psychology.