In the mid-1980s, both political parties agreed that an expansion of the federally-backed student loan program would help our country. Democrats envisioned more low-income and minority students going to college, getting degrees and participating at higher levels in society and the economy. Republicans saw loans as a way to add money to the economy. Everyone would win.
Not everyone did.
The facts are startling. The average college graduate in 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt. At the current rate of 5 percent, he must pay $392 every month for 10 straight years to retire it. In total, he'll have paid $47,000, money that could have gone to a down-payment on a house or have been used for travel. Or that could have become a nest egg with which to start a family. Instead, after 10 years, at the age of 31, the average loan recipient has finally climbed back to zero.
In reality, it's often much worse. Only 60 percent of college students graduate, which means that as many as 40 percent of those who start college end up with debt and no degree. And no higher-paying job.
Of those who complete their degrees, most find themselves enslaved. They have no choice but to work. A frugal friend, 32 years old and holding a practical and remunerative nursing degree, has been able to pay off only a third of her $65,000 loan in six years. At the current rate, she'll be 44 before she's loan-free. Meanwhile, she "loses" $12,000 per year in rent, which prevents her from buying a house or saving much money. Without savings and without investments, she can't participate in the country's economic growth.
The effects of the federally-backed student loan program have been equally bad for the country. Student debt now stands at $1.4 trillion — 7.5 percent of GDP, more than twice the federal deficit and more than twice the U.S. credit card debt. And much of that student debt bought useless degrees. Unscrupulous businessmen, eyeing the potential of for-profit colleges, lured wide-eyed students with the promise of reaching the American dream through education. Once the entrepreneurs had the tuition in hand, they often provided a shoddy education.
The for-profit college owners and their investors have gotten fabulously rich while 44 million young people, many of whom were financially unqualified for loans in the first place, are now deeply in debt. The most egregious of the predatory for-profit profiteers may be Jack Massimino of Corinthian Colleges, who, even as his debt-burdened students ran from his fraudulent halls, drew a salary of $900,000 plus a $1 million bonus.
Don't get me wrong. Education is essential to a richer experience of life. Most assuredly, get one. "The only thing they can't take away from you is your education," says the proverb. House? Fortune? Health? Freedom? Even family? All can go, as we've seen in Syria. Education is essential to a rich and fascinating life and to a healthy democracy.
So yes, pursue an education. But go into debt to go to school? Maybe Mark Twain had the answer: "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education," he said.
If a student has a clear sense of who she is and what she wants, there may be logic in a student loan — but only if she chooses an institution that values education above profit.
Peter Wright is a Lake Oswego resident.