The Student Loan Crisis: If you aren’t concerned, you’re not paying attention

Joseph Kennedy, it is said, got out of the stock market after a shoeshine boy gave him a stock tip. When a shoeshine boy is in the stock market, Kennedy reasoned, it is time to get out. And thus Joe Kennedy, JFK’s father and a very wealthy man, got out of the market before the 1929 crash.

Signs are all around us that the federal student-loan program is deep underwater, but the nation’s colleges and universities keep chugging along like the federal gravy train will keep spewing money forever.

True, a lot of small, obscure liberal arts colleges are going out of business, but the public universities and the elite private colleges are as heedless of this trend as a herd of wildebeests who keep galloping along while lions pull down the weaker animals at the back of the herd.

So here are some “shoeshine boy” signs of a looming calamity:

The College Board reported that 29 percent of student debtors were in income-driven repayment plans (IDRs)in 2018 and that the amount these people owed constituted almost half of all the student-loan money in repayment.

Think about that. If half of the outstanding student debt is being serviced by borrowers in income-based plans, that means half of the debt is not being paid back.

Then we have the Government Accountability Office’s report that one-third of a sample of people in IDRs say that they have no income but actually have annual incomes of at least $45,000.  These folks are paying zero on their student loans but aren’t counted as defaulters.

And then we have Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s candid admission that only one out of four student borrowers is paying down interest and principal on their student loans and that 43 percent of all student loans are “in distress.”

Senator Bernie Sanders wants to forgive all student debt, and perhaps that’s a good idea. After all, what’s $1.6 trillion among friends? But we can’t wipe out all that debt without cleaning up the corrupt and mismanaged college industry. Will Bernie shut down the sleazy for-profit colleges? Will he put an end to a tenure system that gives mediocre professors lifetime job security? Will he insist on closing third-tier law schools and redundant regional universities? I seriously doubt it.

So if you are a fortunate adult who has no student-loan debt, you can gaze on the coming disaster with benign equanimity. And if you are a university administrator pulling down 200 K a year, what do you care? The bubble probably won’t burst until after you’re drawing your generous pension.

But for the nation as a whole, the student-loan crisis is a calamity, which has destroyed the integrity of our once fine colleges and universities while plunging millions of saps to the “ragged edge of poverty.”

Wildebeests: Don’t look back, the lions are gaining on us