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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Debt To Society

1. Since 1985, college tuition and fees have gone up 559 percent. Let’s start there.

2. Since 1999, student debt in this country has increased over 500 percent, to $870 million if you believe the Federal Reserve’s estimates, or to $1 trillion if you believe everyone else. Student debt now exceeds total credit card debt. Our federal government, which backs most outstanding loans, is on the hook for hundreds of billions of it.

3. Half of the college graduates of the last few years either have no jobs, are “underemployed” or don’t show up in the statistics at all. Here’s another million coming at you this month.

4. That’s hundreds of thousands of young Americans who aren’t going to be in the housing market at any foreseeable point, Long Island. Who can’t afford to live here on their own, Long Island. Who are putting off getting married and having expensive children. Who can’t get a car loan until the student loans are cleared.

5. In 1984, Americans 65 and older made 10 times as much as those under 35. In 2009, older Americans made 47 times as much.

6. I have little sympathy for willful deadbeats. I’ve been a small businessman who has been burned. This isn’t what we’re talking about.

7. Study hard, get the degree, work within the system and the good job and the good life and probably the Suburban Dream will come.

8. Now we are losing a generation who face heavy debts and dim employment prospects. Many will do fine, but many will not. And they know it.

9. We hear leaders mouthing words about the need for an educated workforce. From 1990 to 2010, state funding for public colleges and universities fell 26.1 percent per full-time student. We have shifted a public commitment to someone else, again.

10. Over 17 million Americans with college degrees now work in jobs that require no college degree. Over 18,000 professional parking lot attendants have college degrees. Honorable work, but not what they bargained for.

11. Medical school debt has increased eight-fold over the past thirty years, now averaging $158,000. Law school tuition rose 317 percent over the past two decades.

12. In the last three years, 1.84 million jobs have been added to the economy. Great. There has also been an increase of 2.96 million workers age 55 and over, who can’t afford to retire.    

13. It’s not just the kids. While two-thirds of college debt is owed by Americans under 30, American retirees owe $36 billion on student loans. It’s not uncommon for Social Security checks to be garnisheed to pay loans from decades ago, or for people in retirement homes to be hounded by collection agencies, sometimes on loans they thought they closed out decades before.

14. Last month, JPMorgan announced that it is no longer accepting student loan applications. Period. They will not get caught standing when the bubble machine stops playing music. Not this time.

15. Almost any kind of debt can be discharged in bankruptcy, including medical bills, credit cards, mortgages and even gambling debts. Not student loans, thanks to the bankruptcy “reform” passed by Congress in 2005. Before, banks and other private lenders usually tried to work out payment plans. Now, they are seizing income, or worse.

16. More than a dozen states allow debtors to be imprisoned. Collection agencies are buying up old debts and getting judgements without the borrower even being aware of what’s going on. Credit and collection agencies make lots of mistakes. Paid that debt years ago? Tell it to the judge, in the morning.

17. California public university students are proposing an option of paying 5 percent of their post-graduation income for 20 years as an alternative to the debt-for-diploma treadmill. This kind of income-based repayment model, in which debtors pay more as their incomes increase, could be a very sweet deal for the schools.

18. On the whole, college graduates still get jobs and make at least a little more, but the big gains in total income isn’t getting to them. It’s been going to the top of the top.

19. Globalization, trickle down, job creators, whatever.

20. This is the America we’ve been building for 30 years.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net