College: The Debt Trap

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Friday, January 07, 2011

For years, student loan debt has been mounting, and borrowers have been trapped in a bubble in which the availability of financial aid and the cost of college have driven each other up. Since the crash of 2007, the time bomb has exploded, with more and more graduates unable to earn the salaries they had counted on to repay their loans.

The 15-year default rate for federal student loans, as reported last summer by the Chronicle of Higher Education, is now 20 percent; for community colleges, 31 percent; for for-profit schools, an appalling 40 percent. Wages, tax returns, even Social Security and disability payments are being garnished by the lenders. In 2010, outstanding student loan debt reached $833 billion, surpassing credit card debt. The result is a disaster some have compared to the foreclosure crisis.

Last fall, the Advocate reported on the problem in "Killer Loans" (October 14, 2010). Just nine days earlier, CNBC had sent interviewers to the Seattle area to meet with Alan Collinge, author of The Student Loan Scam, the book that tipped us off to the crisis and to the fact that conventional protections for borrowers—discharge in bankruptcy or the freedom to look for a lender offering better terms—don't apply to student loans.

On December 21, after interviewing Collinge and others, CNBC aired an hour-long documentary, The Price of Admission, that exposed the trap student lenders have created for borrowers, the outrageous profitability of the largest lender, Sallie Mae, and the plights of graduates stuck with debt that rises as high as half a million dollars. One riveting story involved a couple whose personal tragedy when their son died suddenly was compounded by a bill for $80,000 because they had co-signed for his loans.

No one in college, getting ready for college or getting ready to send a child to college should be unaware of this problem. Plan your college career so as not to waste money unnecessarily; give some thought to starting at a community college or a public college or university in your state of residence. Avoid pricey private loans; verse yourself in the terms of your loan, including its rules on deferral and default; and keep records of every payment you make and every interaction with your lender.

Contact U.S. Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Richard Durbin of Illinois and urge them to press forward with legislation to restore conventional protections (decades ago they were there) to student loans. Check one or all of these sources: "Killer Loans," Valley Advocate, October 14, 2010; CNBC, The Price of Admission (www.cnbc.com/id/39911910); The Student Loan Scam (Beacon Press, 2009), by Alan Collinge; and the websites StudentLoanJustice.org (established by Collinge) and projectonstudentdebt.org.

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