The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 15, 2016

The real story of student debt

July 14, 2016

The public discourse about student debt threatens to generate policy solutions that will help many well-off, highly educated young adults while failing either to solve the problems of struggling former students, many of whom never finished their degrees, or to prevent future students from getting into untenable situations.

In my recently released book, Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education Financing, I explain where the real problems with student debt lie and address common misperceptions.

The popular student debt narrative tends to focus on graduates who borrowed large amounts of money, completed bachelor’s degrees during the Great Recession, and—if they are not sitting on their parents’ couches—are working at Starbucks or the Gap. If only they did not have student debt, they could rent apartments, buy houses, have children, and start their own businesses.

These stories may be real, but they are far from typical. Among 2011–12 bachelor’s degree recipients, 18 percent borrowed $40,000 or more. Only 7 percent of all student debt holders owe $75,000 or more, and most of them went to graduate school. It’s actually not sky-high levels of debt that are the real problem. It is the relatively small amounts of money that students borrow to pursue programs of study that they do not complete or whose credentials have little or no value in the labor market.

The faces of the student loan “crisis” should not be the 23-year-old, middle-class graduates of four-year colleges taking time to find themselves, but the 30 year-old single mothers who saw an ad on the bus, signed up for a medical technology degree at a for-profit college, paid their tuition with loans, and were unable to complete the program.

Certainly many students and former students run into unanticipated problems that lead to difficult financial situations. Because the payoff of a college education is uncertain, we should have good insurance policies to protect these students. And in fact, we do have several income-driven repayment plans that prevent borrowers from having to make larger payments on their federal student loans than they can afford. These programs are far from perfect, but they can make a big difference for people having trouble paying off their college loans. Unfortunately, too many borrowers either don’t know about these options or can’t navigate the bureaucracy involved in signing up.

The reality is that the people struggling the most are those who never went to college or who went to college with weak academic preparation and without good advice about where to go, what to study, and how to pay for it. Proposals to forgive all or most outstanding student debt, including that of the relatively privileged few who have bachelor’s degrees, is not going to solve the real problems.

Many aspects of the student loan system are badly in need of reform. A better-designed system would protect borrowers facing unexpected hardship, without requiring large and poorly targeted subsidies from taxpayers. But we also have to do a better job preparing students for college, guiding them into productive pathways, preventing them from enrolling in institutions that will almost certainly not serve them well, and supporting them financially, emotionally, and academically so they can achieve their goals. 

Natalie Hickey was 17 years old when she left Ohio to attend photography school in Santa Barbara. Four years, and thousands of dollars of debt later, Hickey half wishes she'd stayed in Ohio and never went to college. She is now facing near certain default on her loans. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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