04/26/2012 06:41 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2012

Burdening Our Children With a Mountain of Debt

One of my best graduate students came to me a few weeks ago to say she's not sure whether she can finish her degree next year. She'd calculated that between her undergraduate and her graduate studies, she is now carrying some $90,000 in debt. She said she can't handle more.

Given that the starting salary for most new journalism graduates falls somewhere between $30,000 and $35,000 a year, I can more than understand her concerns.

Other than promising to put in an appeal for aid, I couldn't in good conscience build a persuasive argument for her to stay. It's true, a new Georgetown University survey suggests, that those holding graduate degrees have a lower unemployment rate. But my student already has an offer at a small-town paper. Though she'd clearly be more skilled and better-educated with another year of tutelage under her belt, she'd also clearly add to that burdensome debt.

Her story is a familiar one across a higher education landscape littered with a mountain of outsized bank bills. Student debt this week hit an estimated $1 trillion, triggering, The Christian Science Monitor reports, a wave of Occupy-Wall-Street-type protests.

Among other things, the protesters demanded that banks provide students with zero interest loans and that all colleges open their books for students to examine, the paper reported.

Instead, however, Congress is headed toward a July 1 deadline over whether to double from 3.4 to 6.8 percent the interest rates on new loans for some 7 million of the country's most in-need students. Unless Congress acts, the loan rate will jump automatically, the AP reports.

Given that it's an election year, that Mitt Romney supports the lower rate and that the issue has handed President Obama a weapon with which to bludgeon House Republicans, I'm guessing their leaders will eventually fold on this issue and support the lower rate. But who knows?

On Capitol Hill, posturing and positioning are in full political plumage.

Noted AP Thursday, "The House Democratic leader accused Republicans of raiding women's programs to pay for a bill keeping student loan interest rates low ..."

Regardless of the outcome of this battle, it is but one small piece of a bigger issue: the skyrocketing cost of a college education. Student debt now surpasses credit-card debt. Notes an essay in The Huffington Post by a Brown Center on Educational Policy fellow, it just might make more sense to support heftier grants for students while in school than to extend lower interest rate payments to them after they leave. But why not both?

It's hard to imagine $1 trillion. It's easier to understand this note enclosed with my annual renewal for AARP membership. It read: "68 percent of AARP members are financially supporting their adult age children to some degree."


An education is a huge factor in financial independence. Better-educated people are better-paid people. And if the United States hopes to compete in an increasingly international world, it has to ratchet up the opportunities provided by education, not drive out those who can't afford it.

Yet these days, the bubble of rising higher education costs and rising higher education debt seem to mimic that housing bubble of just a few years ago. Soon, if not addressed, this bubble, too, will burst.

When even our public colleges -- whose in-state tuition, reports, averaged about $16,000 a year in 2011 -- price out middle- and lower-income students, the ethical implications are clear. But there are practical implications, too. Unless public and private colleges look for ways to cut costs and keep students enrolled, they could find themselves competing with and losing to lean, much-less-expensive, and often intellectually limited online degree mills.

Still, the challenge of easing and slowing the debt burden can't be left exclusively to colleges or the taxpayers. At a time when banks are giving their customers savings interest measurable in nickels and dimes, there's no excuse for them to be raking in interest far above the national inflation rate. Last time I looked, that rate was substantially below 6.8 percent.

Do our politicians, particularly Republican politicians, really believe that America will extricate itself from the debt mess its dug for itself by denying its young a quality education?

In a country in which we've already built fences to keep immigrants out and are arming citizens to "stand their ground," anything seems possible.

But if, as political pundits are fond of writing, American politics is a pendulum that eventually finds its way back to the center, the student loan debate seems an ideal place to stop that pendulum from swinging any further to the right.