On the Money

Defaulting on student loans like 'civil disobedience': Author

All a-loan
All a-loan

If you're one of the 43 million Americans burdened by student loan debt, then you know that repaying your loan isn't fun.

So what if you just stopped?

That's what author Lee Siegel recently proposed in his controversial New York Times op-ed "Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans." He wants borrowers to stop paying on the collective $1.2 trillion in total student debt, in order to protest a system that in his mind unfairly penalizes poor and middle-class students.

"If the banks have become too big to fail, then the people have become too small to succeed," argued Siegel, defending what he says would be "a collective act of civil disobedience" in an interview with CNBC's "On the Money."

Read More11 strategies to avoid student loan debt

Courtesy Lee Siegel

Currently, student loan default rates hover below 14 percent, according to government data. Yet a number of observers warn that a potential wave of defaults could loom, as graduates find themselves unable to pay while tuition prices keep climbing.

Siegel attended two small colleges before earning his bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University. He explained that he took out a total of $48,000 in loans that have since ballooned to $150,000 with interest and fees on his way to becoming a college professor.

He contended that he chose to become a writer instead but "tried to pay it back, and just couldn't do it."

The class of 2015 could face a similar future. According to college financial planning site Edvisors.com, 70 percent have graduated with student loans averaging a total of $35,051. For those graduating from for-profit colleges, that number jumps to $48,024.

Since Siegel's piece was published, he has endured harsh public criticism for encouraging students to default on their loans—and giving advice on how to survive with a ruined credit score. He said his life has even been threatened.

Read MoreThe high economic and social costs of student loan debt

However, he hoped his story would spark a conversation about how student debt is handled.

"I think the most onerous loans should be negotiated, forgiven in some cases," Siegel explained. "I think the government should work out some kind of negotiation plan with students instead of hiring collection agencies to pursue them."

Student loans can't be discharged in bankruptcy. However, if the law was changed and students were allowed to settle or discharge their loans, the fear is that default rates would increase and force lenders to hike interest rates.

Siegel's rebuttal? "I think there should be means to negotiate some kind of settlement the way the IRS will allow you to negotiate a settlement if you're over your head in tax debt," he said.

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