POWELL: Student loan debt problem is vanity of college itself

Published on Monday, 1 February 2021 20:24
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President Biden's new education secretary, Miguel Cardona, lately Connecticut's education commissioner, says he will give priority to the issue of college loan debt.

About 45 million U.S. residents, nearly 14 percent of the population, owe an estimated $1.7 trillion in college loans, with the average debt believed to be about $38,000. People entering adult life with that kind of financial burden often have to postpone family formation, homeownership, and much of the happiness of life. Some are overwhelmed just by the interest on the loans they took, quite apart from repaying the principal.

So there are proposals in Washington to postpone or forgive college loan debt in whole or in part, with the federal government essentially repaying it for the borrowers, thereby raising the question of fairness to people who did not go to college or who paid their own way or got family help.

But the real problem here is not college loan debt at all but college itself. After all, if, as widely presumed, college is such a wonderful thing and college degrees are crucial to successful careers, why can't so many college loans be easily repaid by earnings?

This is not a matter of the damage done to the economy over the last 10 months by the virus epidemic, for college debt has been incapacitating people and failing to deliver for them for many years.

As early as 2013 the Center for College Affordability and Productivity reported that there were 46 percent more college graduates in the country than jobs requiring a college degree and that, as a result, degrees were held by 25 percent of sales clerks, 22 percent of customer service representatives, 16 percent of telemarketers, 15 percent of taxi drivers, and 14 percent of mail carriers.

Of course not all of those people were in substantial debt for college but many were.

The federal government established and subsidizes the college loan system on the premise that everybody is better off with a college education. The burdensome debt and the uselessness of so many degrees have proved this premise cruelly false. Meanwhile, loan policy grossly inflates the cost of college, increasing demand for what fails to work for so many people.

So why does the college loan system continue? It's because college loans long ago stopped being subsidies to students and became subsidies to educators, another vast class of voters who are effectively dependent on government for their income even though many of them work nominally for private rather than government schools.

Government throughout the country, including Connecticut, has worsened this racket by reducing and even eliminating standards in lower education, allowing so many young people to graduate high school without mastering high school studies and sending them on to college to take remedial courses. If students learned what they should in high school, they might not think they need college so much.

Any solution here may be almost impossible politically, since the special interest benefiting from mistaken policy is too big and influential. But a small reform might be to restrict college loans to studies in medicine, science, and other fields where the national interest requires more graduates. Subsidizing more study in post-colonial experience, critical race theory, and sexual oddities may be politically correct but it serves only educators.


Leaders of the Democratic majority in the General Assembly had just agreed to extend for another three months Governor Lamont's emergency power to rule by decree when they realized that this might cut them out of appropriating hundreds of millions of dollars of virus epidemic relief from the federal government.

The governor says he still will consult with legislators about dispensing the federal money, but consulting isn't legislating and carries no legal force. While Democratic legislators don't seem to realize it yet, Connecticut established three branches of government - the legislative, the executive, and the judicial - precisely so power would be democratized and shared.

Having finally bestirred themselves to convene the General Assembly after nearly a year of abdication, the members of the Democratic majority acted first only to emasculate themselves for still another three months. They can't blame Donald Trump for this one.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column, Editorials on Monday, 1 February 2021 20:24. Updated: Monday, 1 February 2021 20:26.