Student Loan Debt: Real Crisis or Really Whiny Kids?

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I’m at a point in my life where student loans aren’t a particular concern of mine. My own loans have long since been paid off, and I’m still a few years away from my oldest child entering college.

However, a few months back, this photo popped up on my Facebook newsfeed.

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My first thought was that the numbers are obviously made up. I have a hard time imagining a student loan in which you pay for 23 years and still owe more than the principal. I also wonder how this person could possibly have a loan with a term longer than 30 years, which would seem to be the case if she still owes more than $45,000.

However, my Internet sleuthing failed to find the original source of the photo to put the figures into context.

So assuming the numbers are real, my next thought was, “How dumb can you be?” It’s hard to feel sympathy when someone fails to notice for 23 years that their loan has a glaring flaw, whether that be an outrageously long repayment term, or minimum payments low enough to guarantee they’ll be in debt forever.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe the student loan system does need an overhaul. Let’s take a closer look at the issue together.

The size of the student debt problem

First things first: Exactly how big of a problem is student loan debt? That question may be more difficult to answer definitively than you might guess. Official government statistics are a bit behind the times, while more current data from other organizations varies.

When it comes to official data, the National Center for Education Statistics is who you want to call. However, the most recent data included in its 2013 report on the subject comes from 2009. During that year, the center says average student loan debt for new graduates was $24,700.

Organizations with 2012 data peg the number higher:

While the individual numbers are different, it appears clear that a lot of students are graduating with a lot of debt. The NCES data from 2009 indicates that 66 percent of graduates in that year left college with student loan debt. For 2012, the Project on Student Debt says that number is 71 percent. Meanwhile, the College Board puts the 2012 number of indebted students at 57 percent of those from public four-year institutions and 65 percent of those at nonprofit four-year schools.

But is it really a problem?

Those are some big numbers to be sure, but do they represent a crisis? That may depend on how you define a crisis.

The College Board finds that the distribution of outstanding student loan debt skews to smaller balances. The largest percentage of student loan debtors in 2012 had balances below $10,000.

  • Less than $10,000 — 40 percent.
  • $10,000-$24,999 — 30 percent.
  • $25,000-$49,999 — 18 percent.
  • $50,000-$99,999 — 9 percent.
  • $100,000-$149,999 — 2 percent.
  • $150,000-$199,999 — 1 percent.
  • More than $200,000 — 1 percent.

Meanwhile, the Brookings Institution says there are few graduates with outrageously high balances, and that most have manageable monthly payments. According to that public policy think tank, the average monthly payment was $242 in 2010, representing 7 percent of the $71,681 average household income earned by those making monthly payments.

Critics of the report, such as The Guardian, shot back that Brookings used poor methodology and missed the larger issue of loan defaults. The U.S. Department of Education says up to 21 percent of student loan borrowers default on their loans within three years of entering repayment. Defaults were highest among students who attended for-profit schools and lowest for those from private nonprofit institutions.

In addition, those who contend student loan debt is a problem say it leads to a whole host of other problems, delayed marriage and homeownership among them, which can have a negative economic impact on the entire country.

Personal responsibility as a piece of the puzzle

For those who say student debt is a problem, the proposed solutions often involve governmental intervention. Student Debt Crisis, an organization that grew out of the website referenced in the photo above, says student loans should be treated the same as other debt.

The petitions on its website call for these reforms, among others:

  • Allow for the discharge of student loan debt in bankruptcy court.
  • Enact a statute of limitations for the collection of student loan debt.
  • Allow students to refinance and consolidate their loans.
  • Expand income tax deductions for student loan interest.
  • Make all loan repayments income-driven and limited to 10 percent of an individual’s income.
  • Forgive all loans after 20 years of repayment.

All may be effective ways to reduce the number of graduates bogged down by monthly student loan payments. However, they seem to ignore the role of students in racking up student loan debt.

Rather than trying to find ways to get students out of their loans (bankruptcy and consolidation are already available in some cases), maybe the answer is to help students make smarter borrowing choices upfront.

Recent high school graduates in particular may have limited money management experience and need extra guidance to ensure they aren’t overdoing it on student loans.

Practical solutions to reduce student debt

If you or your child is getting ready to head to college, try these practical solutions to keep your debt to a minimum and pay off your loans quickly after graduation.

  • Skip private loans. Student loans are available through both the federal government and private lenders. If at all possible, skip the private loans. Federal loans may not give you as much money, but the interest rate is often lower and, more importantly, fixed. Plus, if you run into trouble making payments, the feds let you ask for a deferment or forbearance, something typically not offered by private lenders. In fact, according to some reports, private student loans aren’t much better than credit cards.
  • Work and study at the same time. Working full time and going to school part time might not sound like a lot of fun, but it can be a smart way to get a degree debt-free. And you might not have to work so much either if you use some of the tips in this article about how to go to college without borrowing a dime.
  • Choose your degree wisely. Not all degrees are created equal. Pick a field with good income potential and plenty of job opportunities to ensure that you are able to easily afford your student loan payments. We have an article on the 10 college majors with the best starting salaries. Another option would be to pursue a career that doesn’t require a four-year degree. Medical diagnostic sonographers, dental hygienists and nurses are a couple options that come to mind. For more suggestions, read this article on 17 good jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

Whether you already owe a boatload of money in student loans or haven’t borrowed a dime yet, Money Talks News has plenty of practical tips and advice to help you. Search for “student loans” to find more advice and insight.

As for the original question posed in the title, what do you think? Do we have a student debt crisis on our hands, or is it more a question of entitled kids wanting something for nothing? Tell us your take on the issue in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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