10/08/2012 02:00 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

Student Loan Debt "Story": Chicanery? Inadvertent or Intentional?

During this past year, the irrepressible and contentious media buzz has been that there is now more student loan debt than credit card debt. Of course there are so many details that are NOT reported, it is ridiculous. But the press likes the headline story a lot, and it gets your attention, and so sells the product. Mission accomplished.

But the media leave this single "datum" standing there (and I don't even trust that it is true) as if it were conclusive and righteousness-based evidence that something is globally wrong in the state of higher education.

It actually isn't such evidence.

A huge percentage of the debt has been accrued by students in for-profit universities. While a meritorious and important topic, for-profit student debt is a horse of a wildly different color, and is its own separate conversation. You can't lump the U of Phoenix with Ohio State and Southwestern College in Santa Fe and say anything too meaningful about them as a collective.

Another thing: Presumably a good percentage of the debt represents "degrees earned" -- something you have for the rest of your life. I can hear the questions: "But will it parlay into a job of work?" I don't know -- a very high percentage of the time, yes. Sometimes not directly, but maybe indirectly. And in some instances, no. But you never lose the degree. You do not use it up.

Comparing credit card debt and student loan debt is comparing the debt I owe on my doctoral degree to the unpaid balance on last March's dinner and margarita at Del Charro, and the as-yet-unpaid balance on the sea kayaking trip in Santa Barbara two summers ago. Sorry, those are not really comparable in any meaningful way. We are not talking apples and apples. The debt accrued on education clearly stands an infinitely better chance of paying dividends in the future than does almost anything likely to appear on my credit card bill, ever. So what if it is higher, if indeed it is?

"But what if the person earned no degree, and is still stuck with the debt?" OK, that is a rough one, but I'm not sure whose fault those situations are. Depends on the particulars. Responsibility could fall in any number of directions. Did they flunk out, lack motivation, decide to become a plumber instead, or did they temporarily run out of money? They might still return, and the degree might demonstrate its value somewhere down the line.

There is almost nothing on your credit card that will hold its value for your whole life. You keep the experience and the memories, of course, but you're not there anymore. And you're still paying on it. That is not a bad thing, it just is what it is.

I accumulated some debt back in the '70s to get a BA in English. The debt is now long gone, and I have the BA on my wall, holding the full value 36 years later. Nothing on my 1975 credit card bill is with me now, I can guarantee you that.

Is there ill-advisedly incurred and unreasonable student loan debt out there? Of course. Loads of it. Then again, there are scores of thousands of underwater mortgage situations out there too. And there is a war in Iraq that will cost the total of all the student loan debt in the entire country. A cool trillion. Just saying.

And wait a minute -- isn't it still the case that "level of education" correlates positively with career earnings overall? Resoundingly, yes. You can Google that one all day.

And finally, isn't this topic kind of a convenient red herring during an election year, so that attention gets focused on higher education rather than, say, the wars and the long-standing lousy economy? (Oh, my bad -- the unemployment rate was just reported as the lowest in forty-four months. Isn't that just the darnedest coincidence that it happens one month before the elections?)

I don't know. You tell me. Or ask your 10-year-old.

Just don't be surprised when you get "Duh" for an answer.