STUDENT DEBT: THE NEXT MIDDLE CLASS CRISIS?

Here’s issue #34 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 6/6/12. It examines the rising levels of student debt.

Total student debt topped $1 trillion dollars recently (surpassing credit card debt) with borrowing exceeding $100 billion for the first time in 2010. The average 2010 graduating senior who had a student loan owed a little over $25,000 and 17% of graduating seniors’ parents had loans, and they averaged $34,000. Family incomes, grants, and public investments in higher education have not kept up with rising higher education costs, and therefore the use of loans has increased. Use by older students has grown as they pursue re-training and further education in an effort to increase their chances of landing a good job. Parents are taking on increasing debt to support their children’s education (roughly 10% of the total or $100 billion) and increasing numbers of seniors who are receiving Social Security owe money on student loans.

There is growing concern that student loan defaults could become a problem for lenders. Among members of the Class of 2005 who had begun repaying loans, an estimated 25% have missed at least one payment, making them delinquent, and 15-20% have defaulted, having been delinquent for nine months or more. Once default has occurred, the full amount of the loan is due immediately and interest, penalties, and fees can accumulate. Also, for federal government loans, the borrower loses eligibility for loan forgiveness and future aid, and can also have wages, tax refunds, and federal benefits (including Social Security) garnished. There is no statute of limitations (as there is for most crimes except murder and treason), so borrowers are responsible for the loan literally forever.

There is no relief from student loans under bankruptcy except under very rare and difficult to assert hardship situations. Prior to 1976, student loans were forgiven in bankruptcy, but since then bankruptcy laws have been tightened and in 2005, in a major rewriting of the bankruptcy laws (with a big push by financial institutions wanting to make it harder for consumers to escape credit card debt), student loans were made “non-dischargeable” except for “undue hardship.” This provision was slipped into the 2005 law by an unidentified lawmaker with no hearings or public discussion. After the law was passed but before it went into effect, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that this student loan provision be repealed because less than 1% of student loans were being discharged in bankruptcy. However, repeal never happened. [1]

The student loan debt burden is hampering the economic recovery; it dampens consumer spending, which is what drives our economy. The middle class is getting squeezed again. It is struggling to maintain its standard of living through higher education but can only afford it with increased debt. With high unemployment, jobs that reward education and allow students to pay off their debt are hard to get. The middle class has no economic margin. If they have jobs, wages and benefits are stagnant at best, and families have increased work hours as much as possible. Home prices are depressed with no equity to tap and credit card debt is high. Defaulting on student debt could be the next crisis for middle class families – and for lenders. Long-term delinquency rates on student loans (around 9%) are already higher than they are for mortgages, auto loans, and home equity lines of credit. [2]

In the midst of this, the interest rate on federal student loans will double, from 3.4% to 6.8%, on July 1 unless Congress acts. This will affect 7.4 million students. The cost for keeping the rate at 3.4% is about $6 billion in lost revenue. (This is less than 0.2% of the federal budget of $3.8 trillion including Social Security and Medicare.) Despite the fact that the federal government can currently borrow money at rates well below 3%, in the current political and fiscal environment every reduction in projected revenue must be offset. The fight in Congress is, ostensibly, over how to pay for the cost. The Republicans have proposed cutting preventive health care programs in the new health care law. This was defeated. The Democrats’ version had 51 votes but was filibustered by the Republicans. [3]

In addition, to keeping the interest rate low, advocates are calling for reinstating bankruptcy relief, a reasonable statute of limitations on loan collection, and controls on private interest rates and collection practices. [4] [5]


[1]       National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, 2/7/12, “The student loan ‘debt bomb’:America’s next mortgage-style economic crisis?”

[2]       Common Dreams, 5/31/12, “Student debt explodes, climbing 275% since 2003,” www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/05/31-8

[3]       Associated Press, 5/26/12, “Senate rejects two plans on student loan rates,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Brown, E., 5/11/12, “Indentured servitude for seniors: Social Security garnished for student debts,” Common Dreams, www.commondreams.org/view/2012/01/11-8

[5]       National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, 2/7/12, see above

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