Tag: student debt

College Scholars, Mindless Borrowers?

A few days ago Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chairwoman of the House higher education subcommittee, had the audacity to say in a radio interview that she didn’t have a lot of sympathy for students who racked up $80,000 to $200,000 in college debt. Opportunists have leapt at the chance to attack her, branding her as either mean, or out of touch because what led to her discussion of college debt was retelling how she grew up poor and paid her way through school.

Now let’s be clear: Foxx wasn’t deriding bachelor’s grads holding average debt – about $25,000 for the two-thirds of students with debt – but people with big multiples of that. You know, the ones seemingly featured in every news story or congressional hearing dealing with higher education. And it is, often, very hard to sympathize with such people if you are able to track down crucial information about them such as what they’ve studied, where they’ve chosen to go to school, and what they spend their money on. This CBS News piece is a classic of the Woe-is-Huge-Student-Debtor genre, which Radley Balko and I took apart at the time of its airing.

There’s no question that the price of higher education has been rising at breathtaking rates, and profit-maximizing schools – and politicians who fuel the maximization – bear a good chunk of the blame. But is it really beyond the pale to suggest that maybe some students, who seem to accumulate debt without a care in the world until payment comes due, bear some responsibility for their predicament? Indeed, aren’t these supposed to be pretty smart people – you know, “college material” – who should at a minimum be capable of estimating costs, loan burdens, and potential earnings? Of course, but try bringing that up in the higher education cost debate. You’ll instantly become the Dean Wormer of the group, reviled for killing all the fun of poverty-crying students.

And here’s the thing: Giving the impression that students face an even greater burden than they do – which is exactly the effect of repeatedly focusing on fringe debtors – only encourages Washington politicians to pour even more money into student aid, letting schools raise prices even faster.

The vitriolic response to Rep. Foxx is exactly why so little progress is made in politics generally, and higher ed specifically. There are just some things you can’t talk about, no matter how important than may be, and if you dare bring them up you can expect anything but an honest discussion. You can  expect only cheap shots and smears.

Why Should We Pity These People?

A couple of weeks ago, I ripped apart a factually anemic but all-too-typical USA Today article decrying the plight of student debtors. Today, the grand journalistic tradition of anecdote-and-pity laden reporting on student debt continues with offerings from Business Week and The New York Times.

In an article about tight times for student loan forgiveness programs, The Old Gray Lady sticks with the journalistic tried-and-true by leading with an extreme anecdote that readers, presumably, are supposed to see as illustrating typical suffering:

When a Kentucky agency cut back its program to forgive student loans for schoolteachers, Travis B. Gay knew he and his wife, Stephanie — both special-education teachers — were in trouble.

“We’d gotten married in June and bought a house, pretty much planned our whole life,” said Mr. Gay, 26. Together, they had about $100,000 in student loans that they expected the program to help them repay over five years.

Then, he said, “we get a letter in the mail saying that our forgiveness this year was next to nothing.”

Now they are weighing whether to sell their three-bedroom house in Lawrenceburg, Ky., some 20 miles west of Lexington. Otherwise, Mr. Gay said, “it’s going to be very difficult for us to do our student loan payments, house payments and just eat.”

Please, Mr. Gay (and Mr. Glater, the author of this heart-string puller)! You, and presumably your wife, are only in your mid-twenties, have what appears to be a very nice home according to the picture accompanying the article, and yet have the nerve to assert that taxpayers should eat your student loans lest you not eat at all!

Excuse me if I don’t start singing “We Are the World.”

This is simple greed – you know, the stuff for which the media regularly excoriates “big business” – but readers are expected to see it as suffering because it involves recent college grads. Oh, and grads who have gone into teaching, according to Glater “a high-value but often low-paying” field. That the Gays have felt wealthy enough to buy a house despite holding much greater than normal student debt – and the fact that on an hourly basis teachers get paid on par with comparable professionals – doesn’t present any impediment to the reporter repeating the baseless underpaid teacher myth. It’s all just part of the standard narratives.

Business Week’s piece isn’t much better than the Times’, though at least reporter John Tozzi had the decency not to start off with an emotionally manipulative anecdote of supposed human suffering. His third paragraph, however, centers around “analysis” from the student-centric Project on Student Debt, and he rolls out the ol’ Tale of Woe right after:

“It’s just so frustrating,” says Susan D. Strayer, director of talent acquisition for Ritz-Carlton in Washington. “They tell you to be self-made. They tell you get yourself a good education and you can get yourself into a pretty big hole.” Strayer, 33, has $90,000 in student loan debt from her bachelor’s at Virginia Tech and a master’s from George Washington University. She also has an MBA from Vanderbilt University, which she earned on a full scholarship—but skipped two years of earnings to acquire. Strayer says her monthly loan payments of $600 barely budge the principal on her debt. She doesn’t regret her educational decisions, although she says the debt load has made her put off plans to pursue a consulting side business full-time.

So Ms. Strayer chose one of the most expensive schools in the country —George Washington — for a Master’s (in what we do not know); we have no information about why she chose to finance her education through loans (she and her parents bought new cars, clothes, and stereos instead of saving for college, perhaps?); but we are supposed to feel it is a terrible thing that at 33 she hasn’t been able to start a full-time consulting business. Why is that, exactly?

Thankfully, though he frontloads anecdotes and pity parties, Tozzi ends his piece with a clear, if far too rare, voice of reason:

“It’s easy for me to say, ‘Oh, I have all this student loan debt,’ but I chose to take it and I have to deal with the consequences of that choice,” [24-year-old] Patricia Hudak says. “So many people in my generation think of everything as a short-term investment with immediate return.”

Finally, someone I can truly feel sorry for! Why? Because with journalists cheering it on, Ms. Hudak is exactly the kind of person that our political system will punish, making her pay not only for her own choices, but those of the Gays, Ms. Strayer, and countless other student debtors who really do think that everything, and everybody, should give them an immediate — and huge — payoff.

Two Terrible Tastes That Taste Even Worse Together

Few things irk me more than human-interest anecdotes parading as objective journalism, or college students/graduates complaining about how much money they owe – and think someone else should pay – for their educations.

Perhaps in a bid to break some sort of irritation record, yesterday the USA Today combined these two odious phenomena into one wretch-inducing article about how just cruelly difficult it can be to rid oneself of the student debt one freely entered into.

I won’t go into a detailed dismantling of the piece. Read it for yourself and you’ll see that it really is nothing but a long series of anecdotes delivered with way too little information to have any idea why the debtors shouldn’t, you know, take responsibility for debt they freely incurred. I’m just going to highlight one vignette that sickly typifies just how rationally and morally bankrupt (pardon the pun) both the sentiments of some debtors, and the article, are:

Lenders often fail to offer relief to the neediest borrowers, says a report issued last month by the National Consumer Law Center.

“I feel like it’s a real shame that people like me are coming out of college, weighed down by all this debt,” says Austin Light, 24, a journalist for The Mecklenburg Times in Charlotte. He and his wife have $100,000 in student loans. “My dream is to be a full-time children’s book author and illustrator, and if I wasn’t shackled with this debt, I would be pursuing that.”

In how many ways is this galling?

  • We don’t know anything about why Mr. and Mrs. Light have $100,000 in student debt, but we are supposed to become morally indignant just because they feel “weighed down” by it? Did they go to very expensive schools? Did it take them each seven beer-soaked years to graduate? Who knows, but since average student debt for graduates who have any debt is only about $20,000, the rational conclusion must be that they did nothing to control their costs.
  • We don’t know what these two studied, but we do know that Mr. Light really wants to be a children’s book author and illustrator. Well, you don’t need to go to college for that, especially one so expensive you incur a debt that even Stephen King – much less a neophyte kiddie lit author – might have trouble paying back.
  • Given the overall context of the article, readers are presumably supposed to feel that it should be easier for the Lights to discharge their debts in bankruptcy. But why should people who lent them the money, especially taxpayers who have no choice but to back federal loans, have to take losses on loans that these two freely agreed to pay back when they took them? Isn’t the word for that “stealing”?

Unfortunately, this seems all-too representative of the growing sense of entitlement exuded by many student interest groups. Students should get all the benefits of an education, but someone else should pay for it! And their will is being done in Washington, with several pieces of aid-enhancing, loan-forgiving legislation (which I sketch out here) having been passed in the last couple of years; the Serve America Act – which includes taxpayer-funded education stipends for qualifying “volunteers” – enacted in April; and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), according to the USA Today article, planning to re-introduce legislation that would allow private student loans to be discharged under bankruptcy.

And we wonder why higher ed costs, among other things, seem to be out of control…