Over a Cliff

10/08/2010 03:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I was younger my uncle tried to get my mom to sign on to a pyramid scheme, and seriously, who doesn't know to run away as fast as they can from those things? It is a common adage that "you can't get something for nothing" in this world, so when someone offers you a chance to gain a tremendous amount with very little sacrifice, the warning bells inside your head should knock you unconscious before you have a chance to say yes. We all know that Ponzi schemes are bad and that people like Bernie Madoff should rot in jail. So why, when offered the same deal from a student loan company, do we accept it without question?

In thinking and writing about student loans, I feel that I need to address the issue of personal responsibility. Are we in fact just irresponsible children who escaped adult supervision long enough to make a huge financial mistake? If not, how do we get from responsible to default? Or have we all been duped by a loan system that is no better than a mountebank?

And what I think is an important question: Would we feel differently if the economy were good and we could get those awesome jobs we were promised?

My wording here perhaps betrays my feelings about the way education does business in America (I do admit that I am not familiar with how they do business in other countries). And it is a business through and through--in my experience working in higher education, I have come to realize that the best way to understand the academic philosophy of an institution is to follow the almighty dollar. And I'm not just talking about for-profit organizations. The way state budgets determine not only what the schools are able to do but how they should do it--in a country where those involving education should be some of the freest choices we make, no less--is enough to make anyone nauseous. To be clear, as I've said before, I am not ungrateful to the lending institutions that allowed me to finish my degrees. The interest rates are in fact low; I would just like not to feel so slimy when I pay every month, or so irresponsible when I have to enter forbearance.

And so let me be very clear about responsibility: I believe that people should pay back their debts, especially when a contract has been signed in agreement to do so. We all learn as we grow older that we cannot get something for nothing. Everyone has to work for what he has, and I've been working since I was 16 (back to the "I'm not lazy" argument). What exactly is it that we, as champions of interest-only payments and financial hardship forbearance, would like to hear?

What I want is truth in lending to students or prospective students. Yes, the interest rates are low, but how much is that compounded for 30 or 40 years? What amount is added to your principle of $10,000 if you can only pay minimum amounts? What actually happens if you default? Why are we never explicitly told that they can garnish your paycheck, or that you can make yourself ineligible for future loans? And for heaven's sake, why does no one care that the jobs just might not be there? It's like training really hard for a marathon that takes you right over a cliff.

I don't know how to answer the question I posed above regarding better economic times. Considering how I feel about paying bills, I could guess that even if I made a billion dollars a year, I would still hate paying back student loans. But would it only be a minor annoyance instead of a take-the-food-right-out-of-my-mouth kind of thing? I don't know. Maybe I'm just looking for a system that doesn't assume everyone will be making a billion dollars a year right out of school.

And I suppose that's what really bothers me: the myth. The fabricated idyllic life of money falling from the sky, a new car, kids, a domicile where you might be able to paint the walls, and maybe a nice restaurant every once in a while. Because it's really not enough to hear that student loan officers feel bad for me, balanced of course by the tsk-tsk tone when they see that I'm at the base of said cliff and can't climb back up.