When I first met my wife 21 years ago, her mother wasn't so sure about me.

After all, I was a decade older than her daughter, and we were engaged to be married within five weeks of meeting. So, she tried to come up with things that might scare me off.

"Has Joan mentioned that she has $85,000 in student loan debt?" she said to me one day. I replied, "Yes, she has; I still want to marry her."

For those economists reading this column, that's $142,000 in today's dollars. Add interest paid on top of that, and you are talking about really big bucks.

But the debt is now paid off.

And now we have three daughters who will soon be leaving for college themselves.

President Joe Biden's recent announcement that he will unilaterally forgive $500 billion in student loan debt sounds magnanimous until you figure out it really means folks who either didn't go to college or who have already paid for college will end up footing the bill for someone else's college education.

After all, these are federal loans that are underwritten by the American taxpayer.

The predicament we are now in is not all that different than the housing crisis in 2008.

Back then, bank presidents were giving loans to homebuyers who would not likely be able to pay the loan off. Why would a banker do such a thing? Because they could immediately sell off those loans to the federally sponsored organizations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and leave the taxpayers on the hook if the borrower defaulted.

University presidents are doing the same thing today. They are admitting students into degree programs where there is little chance individuals will earn enough to pay for the cost of their education.

Why would a college president do this? Because students are able to borrow federally backed student loans, and if they can't pay it back, again, the taxpayer is responsible.

The current student loan system contributes to the tuition hyperinflation we are now experiencing in higher education.

Colleges raise tuition because they know students will cover the cost with borrowed money. Students borrow more money because tuition has been raised. And the self-perpetuating cycle continues.

The interesting thing about this cycle is where the money is going.

"The student/professor ratio has remained unchanged over the years," Antony Davies, a professor of economics at Duquesne University, told me a couple years ago. "The growth we have seen is in the area of administrative overhead. More and more people are being hired to do things like make sure the university is complying with government regulations. They have no direct contact with students."

Now President Biden says the debt should be forgiven.

This is a reverse Robin Hood program. It is disproportionately benefitting wealthier households at the expense of others. More significantly, it does nothing to solve the underlying problem of the cost of higher education.

The Washington Post noted in an Aug. 24 editorial, "Widely canceling student loan debt is regressive. It takes money from the broader tax base, mostly made up of workers who did not go to college, to subsidize the education debt of people with valuable degrees. Though Mr. Biden's plan includes an income cap, the threshold does not reflect need or earnings potential, meaning white-collar professionals with high future salaries stand to benefit. Student loans, moreover, are a poor proxy for household income: An analysis by policy researcher Jason D. Delisle found that, in 2016, students from high-income and low-income families were just as likely to take on debt for their first year in an undergraduate program — and students from high-income families borrowed the largest amounts."

So how do we reform the system? The most obvious way is to have student loans underwritten by the college the student is attending, rather than the federal government. This would force university administrators to ask tough questions like, can someone earning an art degree pay off a $100,000 debt?

Another option would be for the government to treat colleges the way Biden wants to deal with big pharmaceutical corporations. Since taxpayers foot the bill for medicine purchased through Medicare, he wants to use that clout to negotiate down the price of prescriptions for all of us. Good for him.

But he ought to be doing the same with colleges and universities. If they want their students to be eligible for federally backed student loans and grants, they need to lower the cost of a college education.

In the 1970s, 25% of high school graduates between 18 and 25 attended college. Today that number is 50%. But don't fool yourself. Kids are not twice as smart as they were back then.

Instead, we are putting more and more people on the path toward credential-seeking. Some people even make the mistake of confusing learning with credential-seeking.

When my dad taught me carpentry and concrete masonry skills as a teenager, that was just as much a learning experience as sitting in a classroom and memorizing the periodic table. But there are some highfalutin' folks who don't think much of such learning experiences. To them, education only counts if it comes with a degree (and a price tag) attached.

Trade unions, employers and others offer excellent training opportunities that don't require the assumption of debt. Some of the best journalists I've worked with never attended college. They started at small weeklies and worked their way up.

When a plumber comes to my house, it doesn't matter to me if the person attended college. And yet, they are paid well and their work is critical to society.

College isn't for everybody. But opportunities to succeed should be available for everyone.

Scott Reeder, an Illinois Times staff writer, can be reached at sreeder@illinoistimes.com.

About The Author

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder is a staff writer at Illinois Times.

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