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August 29, 2013 5:35 PM Normal Lives Dominated By Student Loan Debt

By Ed Kilgore

At College Guide today, Daniel Luzer offers some needed perspective on how to look at the student loan crisis—or rather, the different ways you can look at it:

If the question is: ”Which colleges leave individual students with the biggest debt loads?” the answer is easy: private colleges.
The average private college borrower in 2010 left school $27,650 in debt….
If the question is: “Which colleges leave most their students with unmanageable debt loads?” there’s a different answer: for-profit colleges. The average for-profit college borrower in 2010 left school $33,050 in debt.
For-profit schools are probably the worst individual actors here, since they generate large debt but, because their schools aren’t themselves particularly well regarded, they don’t do a very good job actually getting people good jobs. This is why the default rate on student loans is highest here.
But if the question is “which colleges have really changed the country and made it so that most young people start their professional lives with debt it takes years to pay off?” (And this is, I think, the best way to approach the college debt question) the answer is more interesting.

That’s because the least expensive and most heavily attended schools—public colleges—have steadily begun to shift their revenue base from state appropriations to loan-financed tuition. And thus the gap between the loan burdens they as opposed to private and for-profit colleges impose is shrinking.

The real story about the growth in student loan debt comes from public colleges. Because these schools are cheaper the total debt levels are relatively low. The average public college borrower in 2010 left school $20,200 in debt.
But because the vast majority of college graduates come from these schools (70-80 percent) this is the real story of American debt. Two decades years ago virtually no one who graduated from public colleges had any debt. Today $25,000 in the red for a degree from Cal State is normal….
There are great villains here, for sure. The tactics of for-profits and many private colleges are really awful, leaving students with debt they have no hope of repaying. But the most despicable offenders are exceptions; they aren’t responsible for the most serious problem, which is just that normal American young adult lives are now totally dominated by student loan debt.

That should not be “normal.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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