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The Case for Student Loan Reform, But Not How You Think…

So President Obama is in Denver today talking about how to ease student loan debt.  In yet another example of the politics of big government, he’s expected to reduce the amount students would have to pay per year (implementing a cap at 10% of salary) and push for forgiveness of debt at 20 years rather than the current 25.

The amount of student debt in the US is massive; over a trillion dollars currently.  Americans currently owe more in student loan debt than they do on credit cards.  The Stafford Loan, for instance, allows students to borrow up to $57,500 as an independent (with no parental support).  Students often compound commercial and federal loans into enormous sums of money – often under the assumption that they’ll be able to find work upon graduation.

Now before you suggest that’s the problem, look again.  The Labor Department for September of 2011 shows an unemployment rate of only 4.5% for those with a college degree.  So an inability to find jobs doesn’t seem to be the norm for graduates.

So we have people investing in their education, and rightly finding work after graduation.  Should be no problem, right?

No.  The problem is two-fold.  The average student debt for 2011 graduates is $22,900.  Since many graduates will have less or even no debt, the numbers among those who took loans is likely significantly higher.

The average salary of 2011 graduates entering the workforce is only $36,866. provides a handy list of the average annual salary by degree.  It shows the salary for history, sociology, anthropology and others typically starting in the mid-30s and topping out ‘mid-career’ around $60,000.  Based on regional differences, in reality, you have students graduating who may have more debt that they can possibly make – even at Payscale’s “mid-career” salary level.

If we’re going to make changes to how that debt is repaid, we should also make changes to how it is accumulated.  The entire practice of student loans should be reformed in two significant ways.

Capping Student Loans

First, student loans should be subject to the same earnings litmus test that applies to other credit, but more strictly.

Credit cards, home loans, and other consumer debt limits are typically predicated on your ability to repay that debt.  Amex doesn’t hand out black cards to college kids with no income for good reason – they have little ability to repay.  Home loans, at least in theory if not in practice, require you to prove income before you can qualify for more home than you can afford.

Student loans have none of that. Student loans rarely take into account the potential future earnings of the student.  As mentioned, students frequently compound loans.  The problem is it becomes very easy to accumulate more debt than your future earnings will accommodate.

Student loans should be capped at no more than the average annual salary for a student with that degree.  If a student is likely to make no more than $32,000 with a degree in social work, they shouldn’t be allowed to accumulate loans of $57,500 or more.  By capping total student loans for that degree at $32,000 (combining both direct federal and commercial) and applying the administration’s 10% annual limit for repayment, most student loans should be paid off in significantly less than the twenty years proposed for forgiveness (low-interest rates being assumed).

It is inexcusable that students are allowed to graduate carrying debt nearly as high as, or higher than, their ‘mid-career’ earnings.

Restrictions on Student Loan Usage

Often students take out more loan than they need for tuition and books in order to cover living expenses and other incidentals.  Any credit expert will tell you that putting meals and perishables on a credit card is a terrible idea as the interest increases the cost of those items many times over by the time it is paid off.  Student loans have no such restrictions, and unless things have changed dramatically, there are no caveats against using loans this way.

Stafford Loans, as just one example, carry restrictions that the money is too be used for tuition, books, room, board, or “other education related expenses.”  So what qualifies, exactly?  It’s hard to say.  A search for “Stafford Loan Eligible Expenses” turns up absolutely nothing from the Department of Education on the subject, and the FAQs many schools host have that vague “other” language.  Apparently a used car is an education related expense, as are sneakers, iPods, or anything else.

Since the schools typically hand you a check or direct deposit the funds, there is really no telling what those expenses might be.

If we want to help students who are looking at debt based on future earnings, the least we should do is bring these restrictions in line with sound financial advice.  Allowing students to rack up debt on things Big Macs and tennis shoes is ridiculous.  The education system should limit the way these funds are expended so they cover actual school expenses.  The school should not be in the business of doling out excess funds to 18 year-olds for discretionary spending.

Just recalling my own college experience, I can tell you the day loan excess was disbursed was like a Roman orgy.  The only thing “school related” about the spending were the excuses for why you couldn’t make it to that 8 a.m. class the next morning.

By making these two simple changes, student loan debt might actually be used in accordance with the goal of getting an education.  It would, at the very least, ensure that degree in social work doesn’t come with a debt you’ll never be able to repay.

Written by Michael Turk