Over the centuries, America has bestowed generous, state-sponsored privileges upon select classes of its citizens. Veterans and old people get free socialized healthcare—and, for the most part, they love it. Corporations (who count as people, look it up) get sweet tax breaks and, in the case of defense contractors, no-bid deals to build extremely expensive weapons unlikely to be used in the near future. And young people get thousands and thousands of dollars of student loans to pay for college, putting them in a hole they might spend the rest of their lives digging out of.
Obviously, one of these things is not like the others—the United States has put many students in the position of making decisions that can determine their financial futures when they’re teenagers. This has nightmarish consequences: Some 44 million people have $1.5 trillion in student loan debt on the books. And even when young people do get through college and find a decent job, many can’t fathom possibly buying a home or taking on other trappings of adulthood when faced with decades of monthly loan bills.
The worst part is that those who sought an elite education on the widely accepted notion that it would help them later in life were basically sold a bad bill of goods.
All that debt provides awfully little payoff in terms of boosted wages, even as it ensnares more and more people and hits youth of color especially hard, according to a new paper released Tuesday by two researchers at the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute. Research fellows Julie Margetta Morgan and Marshall Steinbaum concluded that more and more debt hasn’t significantly boosted income for college grads—it just seems that way because high school grads without BAs are making less than they once did. They also found that looking at decent rates of repayment by student debtors is a misleading way to look at the scale of this crisis. And thanks to workers lacking the power they once enjoyed in an increasingly skill-obsessed economy, young people are often being pressured into getting extra degrees on their own dime (which is to say by taking on more debt) for minimal payoff.
For some perspective on how America let student loans get so out of control, why taking on debt is so often a mistake, and what we can do about it, I called co-author Julie Margetta Morgan for a chat. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Why do you think this has been allowed to get so bad, to the point not only that it’s widely known as a crisis, but one that gets worse and worse?
Julie Margetta Morgan: We have seen the overall amount of student debt grow and we’ve seen some of the industries around repayment get worse over time, although default rates recently got a little bit better. But I think that the reason why it’s sort of been allowed to exist as this quiet crisis is that there’s not a lot of agreement among experts that, on the whole, student debt is getting worse. I think that’s because experts primarily look at measures around successful repayment of the loan as the target. And in this paper we try to take a slightly different look. First of all we interrogate those questions around repayments themselves—so we have a section around, like, experts have said that student debt is not a bigger burden now than it was a generation ago. And yet if you delve into the figures a little bit deeper you can see that, in fact, it is worse—the burden is worse but the repayment plans are slightly better, which masks the burden on students.