Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

It's the story behind the story that's interesting

The Supreme Court will be deciding whether the law can be used to decrease Social Security payments to pay off delinquent student loans. The underlying case, of course, has good facts, which have the risk to make for bad law. The good facts, as presented for public consumption, are that the individual being dunned is an elderly diabetic living on nothing more than a little social security and food stamps. The Government has now said it will cut his monthly checks by 15% so that he can pay down the loans on which he defaulted. I have no comment on how I think the case should come out, since I don't really know the facts, and I definitely don't know the law. What piqued my interest, though, was the fact that the guy, who is 67, has $80,000 in outstanding student loans, going back more than 20 years. My first thought was, why didn't he pay these loans off 20 years ago? My second thought was, what kind of major did he go into that meant he incurred that kind of debt without the possibility of paying it off? That was, to me, a much more interesting question. Think of it. Those of us who go to professional school (law, medical, architectural, etc.), knowingly incur a high amount of debt in reliance on the fact that, in our chosen professions, we'll earn enough money to pay off those loans within a reasonable amount of time, and without destroying our ability to save for our retirements. But think about the kid who goes to an Ivy League, incurs $80,000 in debt, and elects to get a degree in Art History. Now, this kid could conceivably turn out to be some major business maven who makes millions, but it's equally likely that this kid spends the rest of his career as a highly educated low earner. This makes it reasonable to believe that he might decide to default on his student loans. This default then means that you and I, the American taxpayers, paid for this kid to go to Harvard and learn Art History. I hate to say it, but that bothers me. If we go to a system such as that in England, where the government pays for University educations, the taxpayers at least know what their obligations are -- to pay for the lucky 2% who go to college, presumably for the betterment of all of England. However, if we have a system where, as here, the taxpayers end up paying for these pricey, and economically useless, educations by default, that's a problem -- especially if the taxpayer got someone else's kid into college, but can't afford to get his own kid into college. I'm all for student loans -- I received them and I paid them off -- but I do think we need to start analyzing seriously the ramifications of student loans that, from the get-go, are probably going to go unpaid. These loans must substantially contribute to the almost $7 billion in unpaid student loans that taxpayers are currently funding. I'm not advocating some simplistic solution, such as announcing that, henceforth, all student loans will only go to people who announce majors that have the possibility of creating post-degree income. I am saying though, that we need to question seriously schools as heavily endowed as Harvard that have tuition run amok and that have their students look, not to the endowment for tuition aid, but to the American public. I'm deficient on economic understanding and imagination, so that's all I could come up with, but I'm sure others, better informed and smarter than I am, can see some more exciting solutions to this problem.