Student debt management 101


Anna is a very smart, very driven young woman. During high school her parents hardly saw her as she holed-up in her room writing papers, studying for tests and preparing for the SAT. When it came time to apply to college she set her sights high and applied to some of the best schools in the country. She was accepted at Yale and Columbia. Georgetown was practically begging her to attend.

Then financial reality reared its ugly head. To attend any of these elite schools would cost more than $50,000 a year. Anna’s parents, with two other children to educate, could not afford that. She would have to borrow well over $100,000 to finance her four-year education. Or, she could accept a generous merit scholarship from a good but not as well-recognized private school.

As I said, Anna is smart. She sat down with her parents and they did the math. She saw how much money she would be paying back in principle and interest after graduation -- the equivalent of a small mortgage payment -- and was horrified. Though it was not her first choice school, she took the scholarship. Her parents cash-flowed her tuition and housing payments and her continued academic excellence earned Anna additional scholarships. She also took on-campus jobs with the student news outlets and worked as a teaching assistant. She recently graduated with honors and no debt.

The above is a true story, though some details have been changed to protect Anna’s privacy. I share it because it is one that needs to be told. It represents what happens in millions of homes when the time comes to talk about higher education and how to afford it. It is a story of fiscal restraint and responsibility. It’s not the kind of story politicians like our own Senator Bernie Sanders like to hear.

Bernie is currently soliciting tales of woe from indebted students around the country to support whatever redistribution scheme he is currently plotting. His Facebook page highlights dramatic stories of high interest payments on debts totaling into the hundreds of thousands. He has no use for a story like Anna’s, but the rest of us do because we know where this debate about student loan debt is going. We know those of us who have sacrificed and struggled to make wise and prudent decisions will be asked to pay for poor decisions made by people over whom we have no control. It’s interesting that a situation as patently unfair as that never seems to register on Bernie’s social justice meter.

The average amount of student debt in this country is around $29,400. Not a small sum, but similar to the cost of a new car and manageable. But, since people like Anna are included in that average, people like Brittany, a student from Oregon featured on Bernie’s page, raises the mean with her outrageous $200,000 debt. The cost of higher education in this country has been rising at much more than the rate of inflation for decades now.

According to the New York Times, the total cost of college tuition, books and housing has risen 450 percent since 1982, much faster than the Consumer Price Index (100), median family income (150) and even medical expenses (250). With such stark figures before us, the question we should be asking is obvious -- why?

Yet the reasons behind this obscene increase are never really addressed. If they were, politicians like Bernie might find the very programs they tout, such as the federal student loan program, are part of the problem. It is an economic truth universally acknowledged that a readily available pool of cash must be in want of being spent. Basically, colleges keep raising tuition and housing costs because they can. Someone will pay it. Expanding the availability of student loans will not fix the problem but worsen it. President Obama’s recent executive order capping student loan payment and extending loan forgiveness to more select debtors will do the same.

Perhaps what American schools need are student debt counselors rather than student loan officers. Every high school should have someone, either a staff member or volunteer, who will sit with students and discuss the consequences of signing that student loan paperwork. A calculator and an amortization chart could dampen enthusiasm for "free" money quickly and easily. Then the counselor and student could discuss affordable options such as community college, state schools (except in Vermont, where our in-state tuition is among the highest in the nation) or even no school. Not everyone can or should attend college, as many find out only after they have embarked on a higher education program and saddled themselves with debt they cannot afford to pay off after they drop out.

The "progressive" solutions politicians like Bernie come up with sadly lack creativity and inspiration. They usually come down to taking one person’s money and giving it to another. There is a transfer of wealth but seldom a transfer of knowledge and wisdom. People who have money have it for a reason -- they have learned how to work hard and manage what they make. Rather than attacking those who make wise fiscal choices we should start learning at their feet. The class of 2014 could start a new education trend by making sound personal financial knowledge a priority. That is higher education worth pursuing.

Audrey Pietrucha is on the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at


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