The Student Loan Program is So Screwed Up That There Is No Solution Without Pain



I read Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a high school student, and I still remember one line from that play:

I am in blood stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.

I understood the line to mean that Macbeth had involved himself in so many murders that he might as well continue on the same bloody path as turn back.

That’s America’s situation with the disastrous federal student loan program. Forty-five million student debtors owe a total of $1.7 trillion in federal loans, and there is no way to undo the monstrous damage that has been done. 

Thousands of articles, books, news stories, and scholarly reports have been written about the student-loan catastrophe, but Eleni Schirmer summarized it very well in a recent New Yorker article.

Shirmer focused on elderly student-loan debtors, beginning her article by telling the tale of Mary Ann, who borrowed $29,000 to attend law school in the early 1980s. Today, she is 91 years old, and her debt has grown to $329,000.

As Schirmer explained, oppressive student debt is not only a problem for the young. One in five student borrowers is 50 years or older–about nine million Americans.

Hundreds of thousands of student debtors reach retirement age without paying off their debt. The federal government garnishes their social security checks if they default on their loans.

Millions of overburdened college borrowers have rolled their loans into income-driven repayment plans (IDRs) to lower their monthly payments. Theoretically, their debt is canceled if they successfully complete the terms of their IDR.

Unfortunately, only a handful of debtors have had their loans forgiven through IDRs. As Schirmer explained:

[O]wing to negligent bookkeeping, I.D.R’s promise of cancelation has proved to be a mere mirage: as of 2021, more than four million borrowers could have accessed I.D.R. loan cancellation, but only a hundred and fifty-seven had ever received it.

As Shirmer relates, the federal student loan program is so screwed up, so burdened by bureaucracy, and so complicated that the government can’t even tell us how much of the $1.7 trillion that is owed is principal on the debt and how much is accrued interest.

For years, the Department of Education has claimed that the federal government makes a profit on federal student loans. Over the last quarter of a century, DOE maintained, the feds created a tidy $114 billion on the program.

But the Government Accountability Office reported this week that DOE grossly miscalculated. In fact, the government lost about $197 billion–a $311 billion math error!

In fairness to the Biden administration, his Department of Education has brought significant relief to millions of distressed student borrowers–mainly by forgiving debt owed by students who claimed to have been defrauded by their colleges. And DOE has initiated several other minor reforms.

Unfortunately, the federal government can’t tinker its way out of the student-loan mess. Real reform will be painful.

What, then, needs to be done?

  • The feds have got to stop sending student-loan money to the for-profit colleges and shut down this sleazy industry.
  • DOE urgently needs to terminate the Parent PLUS program, which has devastated hundreds of thousands of low-income and minority families.
  • Congress must reform the Bankruptcy Code to allow distressed student debtors to discharge their loans in bankruptcy. 

Finally, the federal government must put some reasonable cap on the amount of money students can borrow for their college education and force the colleges to get their costs under control.

Sadly, none of these reforms will ever take place. Why? Because reining in the student-loan program would be too painful for various higher-education constituencies, who are happy with the status quo.

Much like Macbeth, the federal student loan program is so mired in corruption, incompetence, and venality that it can’t be fixed.  Tragically, this program, designed to help Americans go to college and improve their lives, has destroyed the lives of millions.

Steeped in blood and no painless options