Here’s what we do know about student loan debt: it’s roughly $1 trillion in size, greater than either auto or credit-card debt and second only to mortgage debt in the U.S.
Borrowers in their 30s today owe $28,500, on average. The debt burden has soared just as — and partly because — the recession hit, so younger graduates carrying the highest balances are hit with the double whammy of a weak job market (that still isn’t showing any sign of rapid improvement).
And this all comes as globalization and technological change have upended once-reliable career paths, wiped out many mid-level professional jobs and leave low-paying fields in health, food and beverage services, and retail as among the fastest growing job markets over the next decade.
Oh, and consider that student loan debt remains one of the most difficult types to forgive or discharge in bankruptcy, in part because the federal government (i.e. taxpayers) made or guaranteed 80 percent of all outstanding student loan debt as of last year. And finally, that once loans in deferral or forbearance are excluded, the delinquency rate on student loan debt was an estimated 27 percent as of the third quarter of 2011, according to a study by the New York Fed.
Worried? Americans should be.
Still, acknowledging the problem is perhaps the easiest step. Much more difficult is the question of what to do about it. Not surprisingly, young, heavily indebted grads are calling for forgiveness in full or in part of their student loan burdens. Petitions on advocacy website Change.org include calls for federal student loan interest rates to be capped at 3 percent or eliminated altogether. (Indeed, President Obama is currently among those urging Congress not to allow the interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford loans, which are aimed at low — and middle-class borrowers, to double to 6.8 percent on July 1, matching the rate for unsubsidized loans.)
And yet the trouble with those initiatives, or with forgiving student loan debt in whole or part, is threefold. For starters, the straight mathematics: the losses from any such debt reduction scheme will have to be borne by someone, most likely taxpayers, at a time when government finances are already stretched.
Second is the issue of “moral hazard,” that is, rewarding and implicitly encouraging imprudent behavior rather than punishing it. (Of course, it is easier for the public at large to demand that over-leveraged banks be punished for imprudence than 24-year-olds trying to further their education.)