Today in Unsurprising News: Student Debt is Getting Worse

The Wall Street Journal has up a very good piece on student debt. The whole thing is worth a read if you feel like you’re in too good of a mood and need a downer, but the gist is depressing enough:

Today, two-thirds of college students borrow to pay for college, and their average debt load is $23,186 by the time they graduate, according to an analysis of the government’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, conducted by financial-aid expert Mark Kantrowitz. Only a dozen years earlier, according to the study, 58% of students borrowed to pay for college, and the average amount borrowed was $13,172.

The ripple effects for today’s heavily indebted young people are becoming palpable. A growing body of research suggests that tough loan payments are affecting major life decisions by recent graduates, forcing them to put off traditional milestones—from buying a first home to even marriage and having children.

If the health care debate has taught us anything, it’s that many politicians seem reluctant to make assertive pro-reform arguments couched explicitly in the language of justice or fairness (you’ll recall that a Politico reporter recently dubbed moral arguments for health-care reform “discredited”).

We’re gently remonstrated over and over again, told that politics are more complicated than that, that there are too many moving parts for us to view things in such starkly rendered terms as right and wrong. But when you take a step back and view things through the simple prism of fairness, the situation with student loans is remarkable. At a time when college is as vital as ever, when it is far from any sort of luxury, we’re asking the average graduate to pay off their loans for years, to alter the very complexion of their future to account for a debt load they had little choice but to take on.

And, according to the Journal, there’s a very vicious cycle at work here:

[T]he rising levels of borrowing may ironically be contributing to the accelerating cost of college, say some college-finance experts. Loans can give colleges an artificial sense of a family’s ability to pay tuition. To some extent, that false sense of security gets built into the assumptions schools make when setting prices, say experts. The idea is that as prices rise, families borrow more and more, spurring prices to rise further, which in turn requires more borrowing.

It’s not in the spotlight at the moment because of the health care fight, but this is a major civil rights issue and needs to be treated as such.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.