STUDENT loans are based on a simple idea: that a graduate’s future flow of earnings will more than cover the costs of doing a degree. But with unemployment rates in parts of the rich world at post-war highs, that may no longer hold true for many people. The consequences will be felt by everybody.
All over the world student indebtedness is causing problems–witness this month’s violent protests in Chile (see article). In Britain, according to a recent parliamentary report, rising university fees mean that student debt is likely to treble to £70 billion by 2015. But, partly because higher education there is so expensive, the scale of the problem is far greater in America. When the next official estimates of outstanding student debt there are published, it is expected to be close to $1 trillion, higher than credit-card borrowing (see article). Credit quality in other classes of consumer debt has been improving; delinquency rates on student loans are rising.
Many of the anti-Wall Street protesters push the idea of blanket debt forgiveness as a solution. But that is the wrong answer. Higher education is not a guarantee of employment, but it improves the odds immensely. Unemployment rates among university graduates stood at 4.4% on average across OECD countries in 2009. People who did not complete secondary school faced unemployment rates of 11.5%. Much of the debt that students are taking on is provided or guaranteed by the government. Imposing write-offs on all taxpayers to benefit those with the best job prospects is unfair; and ripping up contracts between borrowers and private lenders is usually a bad idea.