The Man Who Defaulted on His Student Loans, And Did Fine

Journalist Lee Siegel has written for a variety of really fancy publications, including Harper’s, the New Republic, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He’s also a total student loan deadbeat.

But that’s kind of OK for him. His reasoning is a little questionable, but worth considering.

As he writes in a recent piece for the New York Times early in adulthood he faced this situation:

I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.

I chose life. That is to say, I defaulted on my student loans.

This is, he says, something many of today’s borrowers should also consider.

As is true of many public policy pieces that stem from personal anecdote, some of this doesn’t really right true. Or, at any rate, he doesn’t seem an entirely sympathetic character.

He writes that due to changing family finances “by the end of my sophomore year at a small private liberal arts college… my mother could no longer afford the tuition that the student loans weren’t covering. I transferred to a state college in New Jersey.” This may well be true, but his publically available bio indicates that he has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Columbia, which is a really expensive school. He certainly didn’t need to get an M.Phil to be a reporter for the Nation and ARTNews and he didn’t need to go to Columbia to do this. He could have made quite a substantial career as a journalist at magazines of ideas armed only with a bachelor’s degree from the much cheaper Rutgers or something.

He writes sarcastically that “maybe the problem was that I had reached beyond my lower-middle-class origins and taken out loans to attend a small private college to begin with.” Well, perhaps this is true, but plenty of people from similarly modest backgrounds have gone to fancy colleges and become journalists and kept paying back their loans.

He didn’t have to do this, but he decided to do so. We need not agree with all of his personal decision making to acknowledge the fundamental soundless of this logic, however:

I am sharply aware of the strongest objection to my lapse into default. If everyone acted as I did, chaos would result. The entire structure of American higher education would change.

The collection agencies retained by the Department of Education would be exposed as the greedy vultures that they are. The government would get out of the loan-making and the loan-enforcement business. Congress might even explore a special, universal education tax that would make higher education affordable.

Ooh. Burn!

He points put that this was a financial decision. Because of the way student loans are provided (essentially to people with no assets, without regard to their ultimately ability to pay) the federal government makes it very unpleasant for people to default. Default ruins credit scores and makes it pretty hard, or just expensive, to do a lot of standard financial things, like buy cars or rent apartments.

But it’s not a moral decision. Financial institutions renegotiate loans all the time when people’s financial circumstances change. And, frankly, if this continues a lot more people may conclude that it simply makes more financial sense to default on their loans and accept the consequences than to struggle every month to pay huge debts. And then the federal government will just have to deal with that, and change the way we finance higher education.

We should maybe to prepared to address that if it happens. It’s not all that far-fetched a scenario.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer