Out of College, out of Luck

By Roger Simon

April 25, 2012 6 min read

There are millions of college students in this country who can't pay back their college loans and millions of others who simply don't want to.

I have a lot of sympathy for the first group and none for the second.

Americans today owe more in student loans than they do on their credit cards. The figure is expected to hit $1 trillion this year.

Getting a large student loan today is about as difficult as it once was to get a home mortgage: If you are breathing and can sign your name, you can get the loan. (In a pinch, the breathing requirement can be waived.)

The government gives student loans because it believe a college education is a good thing (true) and that college students will get good jobs upon graduation and pay back the loans (not so true).

Private institutions are happy to make student loans because, unlike other loans, the borrowers cannot wipe them out through bankruptcy.

If you went to college in a search for knowledge, independence and personal growth, you may be happy with your life today. But many kids look upon college as jobs factories, a place that will grant them a degree, which will automatically lead to a high-paying job.

The first group contains people like art history majors, who probably can tell you the difference between Monet and Manet while getting you your venti cappuccino at Starbucks.

They are not alone. According to a recent study by The Associated Press, college graduates who majored in art history, zoology, anthropology, philosophy and the humanities "were among the least likely to find jobs appropriate to their education level."

Those who studied nursing, teaching, accounting or computer science degrees were among the most likely.

But even being in the latter group does not guarantee success. About 54 percent of those who graduated with bachelor's degrees and are under the age of 25 last year are "jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years."

And they still owe their student loans. Contrary to the impression left by a spate of recent stories — President Obama is making a big push this week to keep the interest rate on student loans from doubling and to make college more affordable — the average student loan debt is burdensome but not staggering: It is about $27,500, and you get to pay it off in installments.

That's still a lot of money if you don't have a job or if you have a lousy one. But what happens if you have a good job?

Greed sometimes happens. The desire to spend one's money on a BMW and a MacBook Air rather than paying off your student loan sometimes happens.

Some years ago, it was revealed that 26 percent of the doctors who got government loans while at Harvard Medical School were in default. That was twice the national average for all students and 11 percent higher than the average for all doctors.

Other abuses were found: The Education Department forgave $4 million in student loans because the borrowers were supposed to be dead, a reasonable excuse. Except the borrowers were very much alive and, I imagine, laughing.

In Chicago, federal prosecutors invited one student loan deadbeat in for a friendly chat to iron things out. He showed up in a new Lincoln, but didn't go home in one. The prosecutors seized the car.

People who do pay off their loans — people like me, who graduated with a degree in English literature and an interest in journalism, two solid qualifications for unemployment — get to indulge in one of the best emotions there is: self-righteousness. It can fill me with a warm, smug glow all day.

President Obama is struggling with Congress to prevent it from doubling interest rates on loans to mostly middle-class students — a struggle that, if successful, would cost taxpayers about $6 billion per year.

Obama is proud of paying off his loans, but also sympathetic to those who are having trouble doing the same thing.

"Look, I'm a guy who had about $60,000 worth of debt when I graduated from law school, and Michelle had $60,000," Obama said in July last year. "And so we were paying a bigger amount every month than our mortgage. And we did that for eight, 10 years. So I know how burdensome this can be."

Both ended up with jobs, of course, and Obama's current one pays $400,000 per year. But should you risk taking out a big college loan in the belief that you will be able to get a high-paying job when you graduate?

Some think not. "You can make more money on average if you go to college, but it's not true for everybody," Harvard economist Richard Freeman told The Associated Press. "If you're not sure what you're going to be doing, it probably bodes well to take some job, if you can get one, and get a sense first of what you want from college."

To me, this is sad. College is about more than getting a job. It is about stuffing your head with remarkable things, meeting interesting people, expanding your horizons and drinking to excess.

Most of those things are worth the dough.

To find out more about Roger Simon, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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