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The pyramid of student loan debt

May 16, 2017

What do you think is the biggest category of consumer debt in this nation, apart from home mortgage loans? Car loans? Medical bills?

Not even close. It is student loan debt, now nearly $1.5 trillion dollars, and getting bigger by the day. The average undergrad leaves school, degree or no degree, owing $35,000. 

Many owe much more. They have to begin paying on their loans as soon as they leave school. Yesterday I talked to a newly tenured faculty member in Michigan, an extremely talented woman in her 40s who still owes $90,000 in student loans.

She doesn’t come from a moneyed background, and would find it hard to, say, buy a house, since she already has to carry the equivalent of a mortgage on her modest salary. This is a scandal that is hurting all of us.

Now, a new book lays out the full dimensions of this looming debt avalanche. The Neoliberal Agenda and the Student Debt Crisis in U.S. Higher Education, a series of essays edited by Nicholas Hartlep, Lucille Eckrich and Brandon Hensley, my colleague at Wayne State, makes it clear just how bad things are.

This is, as they say, an example of unchecked bad policy gone horribly astray.

This book does have one weakness: A constant ideological rant against what the authors call “neoliberalism,” which has nothing to do with conventional liberalism as we normally understand it. The authors use “neoliberalism” to mean a sort of unthinking worship of capitalism and free market values as a solution for everything.

This is occasionally annoying. I have never met anyone who called themselves a neoliberal, and the incessant repetition of this word isn’t helpful. But the authors are correct in thinking that too many of us have been brainwashed to view higher education as something, like a Cadillac, that should only be available to those with the money to buy.

This is wrong-headed. This society and this state, more than ever, need as many educated people as possible, if only because a better educated work force is absolutely essential to our economic survival. Beyond that, can you imagine a world where only a rich kid can become a doctor? The woman I mentioned who owes $90,000 was working in a private sector job making more than she does now before she decided to become a professor.

These days, she is helping give dozens of students the technical skills needed to work in broadcast and other visual media. Clearly, she ought to have her student loans forgiven.

Actually, that she was forced to borrow at all is highly questionable. Who knows how many other potential brilliant scientists or filmmakers will never realize their potential because they were unwilling to get so deeply in debt?

The authors of this book say their goal is to provide a road map to get us to a place where education is seen as a public right and a personal responsibility, not a commodity for sale.

That’s not only morally right, but practically necessary.

The ever-growing pyramid of student debt is unsustainable, and the authors provide evidence that something close to half of those who owe aren’t paying. Maybe, just maybe, it might be a good idea to do the right thing before the wrong one destroys us.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.