WHAT OTHERS SAY: When student loan bubble bursts, poor will suffer the worst

Thursday, October 4, 2012 | 11:00 a.m. CDT

If you are in college, or you recently graduated, or one of your children is in either of those categories, then last week's news from the Pew Research Center won't surprise you.

The center reported Wednesday that a record one in five U.S. households owed student debt in 2010. That's more than double the share from just 20 years ago. The number is likely to rise when the last couple of years' numbers are known.

Unfortunately, the one-in-five statistic isn't the worst figure in the study. It's this: The amount of student load debt, as a percentage of household income, is hitting the poor the hardest.

Unless you're Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and you write off half of the country as lazy and entitled, this is truly devastating for the future growth of the country's economy.

It's a double whammy of bad economic news. First, it's a sign that fewer people can afford the best path to climb from one economic class to another. Second, it sends a signal to businesses that fewer Americans will have disposable income to spend, limiting demand for goods and services.

According to Pew, families in the lowest of five U.S. income brackets who are paying for their own or their children's college education now owe 24 cents for every $1 of income on student loan debt. These are people who make less than $21,044 a year. The graduates who are fortunate enough to get a job owe nearly a quarter of their income to debt before they can buy food, clothing and transportation.

And the parents who are trying to make sure their children have better opportunities than they did?

They're stuck. They're the housing bubble waiting to repeat itself, with the nation's poor and middle class unable to invest, leaving businesses less likely to grow.

The same Pew study shows that the nation's wealthy see their children as having the same opportunities they did. They, too, are increasing their student loan debt, doubling it as a percentage of their overall income.

This is the statistic that makes Mr. Romney's now infamous "47 percent" speech so damning: The wealthy see a college education as a smart way to improve future income opportunities as well. They are also depending on the government to help them reach their goals. But as a percentage of income, the wealthiest fifth of Americans are only spending 2 cents of every $1 on debt, up from 1 cent in 2007. That's couch cushion money.

Every class of Americans — rich, poor, middle class — should have the opportunity to obtain a college degree, whether that degree comes from St. Louis Community College or Harvard University. The No. 1 key to restarting the nation's economic engine is to develop the workforce of the 21st century.

A recent Brookings Institution study reinforced the work of other researchers, identifying the very real gaps between the high-tech jobs that are fueling the economy and the shortage of workers with the proper education to fill those jobs.

If getting ahead is the American Dream, and education is the key to getting ahead, an entire class of Americans is being priced out of the dream.

America succeeds when its middle class is vibrant and has money to spend. When those in the middle fifth of income in the U.S. — people making around the country's median income of $50,054 — are paying 12 cents of every $1 they earn on student loan debt, there is not enough money left over to invest in the country's future. In 2007, according to Pew, that number was a more manageable 7 cents on the dollar.

Americans take on this debt not because they feel entitled to anything, but because they're willing to sacrifice for their families. The student loan bubble can't grow much more before it bursts.

The nation's leaders — everyone from the president and Congress to state lawmakers and university trustees — must make a firmer commitment to making college affordable. Take some air out of the bubble. Give students and parents some breathing room.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Richard Saunders October 4, 2012 | 12:54 p.m.

Student loans are working exactly as designed; to inflict life-long, inescapable debt enslavement for the masses while enriching the banking system with fedgov guarantees (or to sell them to fedgov outright).

Here's a question, if these loans are promoted as a "good thing" why is my gov. owned loan at 9% interest when they can borrow at 0%? Why are there no options available to me to refinance this debt due to a myriad of restrictions?

Why have I never once over the many years of carrying this debt been presented with an amortization schedule or even a pay-off date? Instead, I've just been given a payment amount and an indefinite due date?

Like I said, the system is functioning as designed.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 4, 2012 | 3:40 p.m.

Two problems:

(1) Prices follow the availability of money. Throw more taxpayer money at a problem, prices rise faster than they would otherwise. There is a separate article in this paper about the need for affordable child care. Sure, go ahead and provide taxpayer bucks for this....and watch what happens to child care prices.

(2) Many students taking out college loans are looking for the sheepskin, not the if it is the former that leads to better financial circumstances rather than the latter. While it is true that a sheepskin can open doors previously closed, you still have to be sufficiently educated to perform once you walk through. Your sheepskin is worthless unless you can perform to expectations.

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.