What to Do About Student Loan Debt?

Once upon a time in this country (some might say “back in the good old days), a person could get by just fine without a college degree. In my own family, so the story goes, my great-uncle Melvin Dinesen decided at age 16 that school was stupid and a waste of his time. So he hopped a freight train in western Iowa (the Dinesen family homeland) and rode it all the way to California.

Things turned out well for Uncle Mel. After serving in the Navy, he went on to fame as a mechanic in the motorcycle racing world. Anyone who cares can read more about Uncle Mel’s exploits here, via an obituary written by a hall-of-fame racer he worked with.

So … whats the point?

Well, President Obama has been in Iowa this week to talk about the problem of student loan debt. If Congress takes no action, the interest rate on certain federal loans will double in July. This is a problem, considering the crushing debt loads almost all people in the younger generations carry.

The solution offered by Democrats in Congress — to avoid raising interest rates by changing the self-employment tax rules of certain S-corporations — is a disaster. Joe Kristan at the Tax Update Blog dives deeper into the problems with the proposal.

In my opinion, we won’t find a solution in the tax code. The solution is to change society’s way of looking at education.

My wife, a college professor, often notes that most kids these days are unprepared for the rigors of a college education. Could it be that most kids shouldn’t be going to college? I think so.

The problem is, a college degree is a basic requirement these days. In Uncle Mel’s day, almost no one went to college. If you weren’t a scholar, you could still do just fine in this world.

But now, you must have a degree or you are relegated to a life of working low-paying service industry jobs with no future. This has turned college degrees into a commodity, where every single kid must go to college. There’s a captive audience, and so prices skyrocket. Parents and students pay/borrow whatever it takes because that degree is the only hope the kid has of ever landing a decent-paying job. But as the world changes, the amount of decent-paying jobs for people with degrees is shrinking — which ironically means many college grads have to work in low-paying service industry jobs with no future!

I’m no economist, but that’s my theory.

The Jason Dinesen solution is: place less of an emphasis on getting a degree. From the junior-high days, make kids get out of the classroom and into the work world, even if it’s just doing good deeds in the community.

Put kids to work (in a proper, supervised way, of course). Those who want to go to college could still go on to college.

The non-scholar, or those who don’t know what they want to do with their lives, would have several years of supervised work experience by the time they get to age 18, thus making them more attractive to employers when seeking full-time employment. I think we’d see a lot of behavioral problems go away, too, if we got kids out of the confinement of classrooms and out doing things that made them feel connected with the adult world.

There are many problems with my idea, and my idea almost certainly will never happen. It would require a massive change in the way schools operate and in the way employers screen potential employees.

And it wouldn’t help all the folks who are currently struggling with student loans. Sadly, I don’t know that there is a solution for that problem. (The solution certainly won’t be found by tinkering with the tax code, though.)

Now that I’ve spent more than 600 words on this subject, I’m curious to know what your solutions to the student loan problem are.