Student Loans: The Next Bailout?

Here’s what we do know about student loan debt: it’s roughly $1 trillion in size, greater than either auto or credit-card debt and second only to mortgage debt in the U.S.

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Borrowers in their 30s today owe $28,500, on average. The debt burden has soared just as — and partly because — the recession hit, so younger graduates carrying the highest balances are hit with the double whammy of a weak job market (that still isn’t showing any sign of rapid improvement).

And this all comes as globalization and technological change have upended once-reliable career paths, wiped out many mid-level professional jobs and leave low-paying fields in health, food and beverage services, and retail as among the fastest growing job markets over the next decade.

Oh, and consider that student loan debt remains one of the most difficult types to forgive or discharge in bankruptcy, in part because the federal government (i.e. taxpayers) made or guaranteed 80 percent of all outstanding student loan debt as of last year. And finally, that once loans in deferral or forbearance are excluded, the delinquency rate on student loan debt was an estimated 27 percent as of the third quarter of 2011, according to a study by the New York Fed.

Worried? Americans should be.

Still, acknowledging the problem is perhaps the easiest step. Much more difficult is the question of what to do about it. Not surprisingly, young, heavily indebted grads are calling for forgiveness in full or in part of their student loan burdens. Petitions on advocacy website include calls for federal student loan interest rates to be capped at 3 percent or eliminated altogether. (Indeed, President Obama is currently among those urging Congress not to allow the interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford loans, which are aimed at low — and middle-class borrowers, to double to 6.8 percent on July 1, matching the rate for unsubsidized loans.)

And yet the trouble with those initiatives, or with forgiving student loan debt in whole or part, is threefold. For starters, the straight mathematics: the losses from any such debt reduction scheme will have to be borne by someone, most likely taxpayers, at a time when government finances are already stretched.

Second is the issue of “moral hazard,” that is, rewarding and implicitly encouraging imprudent behavior rather than punishing it. (Of course, it is easier for the public at large to demand that over-leveraged banks be punished for imprudence than 24-year-olds trying to further their education.)

And third is the question of how to keep future graduates from accumulating a mountain of student loan debt just as large, if not larger, than the one just leveled.

It is this third issue which perhaps is most pressing — and most vexing —and which also offers the most opportunity for innovation. Levying an “education tax,” making college free and assigning students to institutions based on a lottery system? Abolishing “college” altogether for more specialized trade institutions instead, while at the same time requiring a “gap year” of liberal arts prior to entry? Offering high-school grads the choice between student loans or business loans to fund new ventures? These all seem ridiculous, but then so too is our current state of affairs.

The College Debt Crisis - See Complete Coverage
The College Debt Crisis - See Complete Coverage

Our current system, in fact, has so failed that it may now be exacerbating income inequality (by saddling low-income students with high loan balances and shaky job prospects), economic malaise (by keeping would-be homebuyers stuck in costly rentals because of already high debt loans and/or poor credit histories, thereby damaging both the housing market and potential consumer spending), and long-term economic vitality (by hampering household and family unit formations with a higher share of 20- and 30-somethings currently stuck at home with mom and dad).

This, in fact, is why it may be far less costly for taxpayers in the long run to forgive as much of the current student-loan burden as possible. Before doing anything like that, however, there must be systematic reform to ensure debt loads simply won’t start to pile up again. (Not to mention the need for repercussions for those borrowers who most benefit from any such initiative, for the sake of fairness.) That is why the need for innovation or overhaul is so pressing.

One thing is certain: if we do nothing to alter the status quo, we will have no one to blame but ourselves for the bleak outcome.

Follow Kelly Evans on Twitter: @kelly_evans