Student Loan Debt and the Culture of Borrowing

Opinion

  on January 06 2012 12:02 PM

The Federal Reserve predicts student loan debt will pass the $1 trillion mark this year.  Students are taking out twice as much as they did 10 years ago (even after adjusting for inflation,) and can't pay it back.  From politicians to protesters, Americans are offering solutions to this seemingly impossible problem.

But students aren't the only ones with a spending problem. Let's not forget to look at everyone's role model, the biggest borrower of all: the federal government. The United States is already $15 trillion in debt, and Congress may raise the debt ceiling (yet) again so we can spend even more.

Student loans in themselves aren't the problem; they're just a symptom of a larger, deeper one. We live in a culture of borrowing, where people take what they think they deserve and expect someone else to deal with the consequences.  Inherent to the word borrow is an understanding of repayment - but our culture seems to have forgotten that.

People ask Is this enjoyable? but not Is this affordable? Students burdened with debt have followed their country's lead, and now turn to it for answers. Unfortunately, it's carrying the biggest burden of all.

The government doesn't just encourage irresponsible borrowing through example. It's much more explicit. Our leaders convince negligent borrowers not to feel responsible, and assure them their consequences are the nation's to pay.

When President Barack Obama spoke at the University of Colorado Denver in October, he asked students: How do we make college more affordable, and how do we reduce your burden? He told them: Americans know that we need to do something about student loan debt, adding that rising college costs are forcing students to take out more loans and rack up more debt.

And the crowd cheered.

This type of rhetoric prevents people from feeling responsible for their own actions. Obama told the students he understands the economy was forcing them to take out the loans takes the blame off of the borrowers. The word force implies that the forced person had absolutely no choice in the matter, and is, therefore, not responsible for the results.

So who is responsible? Obama answered this question when he said Americans need to do something about it. He assured students nationwide that the obligation to solve their financial problems belongs to the country, the government, and the taxpayers.

Too many Americans have become like the spoiled daughters of the Nanny State-except the federal government is the once-rich dad who can no longer afford to put their mistakes on his credit card.

I know personally the depression of financial limits impeding dreams. After undergrad, I was accepted into the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City - widely respected as the best journalism school in the nation. It had been a lifelong dream to attend the school. I flew to the open house, registered for classes, and paid the $1,000 fee to secure my spot in the class.

Then reality set in.

The one-year program, while no doubt valuable, would have put me more than $70,000 in debt. When I finally looked past the glamour of hanging an Ivy League diploma on my wall, I realized I simply could not afford it. This amount would be impossible to pay back on a young journalist's salary.

My decision to decline elicited remarks from friends and family that represent our culture of borrowing: Oh, just go, don't worry about it! and Someone will take care of it! and Oh, but you can take out a loan! ... Actually, I'd have to take out several.

People called me crazy for refusing to borrow $70,000 I had no way of knowing that I could repay. We live in a society where borrowing money you don't have is crazy, and not the other way around.  Doesn't this seem backward?

I wouldn't dream of attending Columbia, graduating with debt I couldn't pay and then cheer as I heard the president say Americans needed to do something about the problem I'd brought on myself. 

I certainly do have sympathy for those trapped in the grip of student debt. I came dangerously close to sharing their burden. Even after I realized the reality of my financial situation, I still pushed it out of my mind. Why? My culture of borrowing told me to go for it.

I'm glad I didn't listen. Rather than take out a huge loan and claim the economy had forced me to do so, I thought of other ways to achieve my goal of working as a journalist.  I waited tables to pay my way through a series of internships and part time jobs before finally landing full time work at The Washington Times. I support myself working in my chosen field. Ironically, journalism school could have kept me from reaching these goals-the constraints of debt could have left me with nowhere to hang that diploma but the walls of my parents' basement.

Millions in student loans and trillions in national debt are anything but nothing to worry about. If we ever expect the situation to change, we need to change the rhetoric. Borrowing a large amount of money- be it for a degree, a home, or another expensive entitlement program-is serious, and we must unite and see it as such.

Katherine Timpf is a digital editor at The Washington Times. Follow her on Twitter at @kctimpf.

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