Last October, in between arguments over the debt ceiling, the federal government somehow found time to send me an e-mail. My student loan payment was 70 days past due, the message read, so the government had negatively reported me to each major credit bureau and would continue to do so until my account was brought current.

I’m betting the government sent out a lot of those letters to people like me: college graduates from middle-class families who didn’t qualify for much in the way of scholarship aid and had parents who couldn’t afford to pay for their schooling.

Research published last month in the journal Sociology of Education shows that students from middle-class families are bearing the brunt of the student loan crisis. Jason Houle, a sociologist at Dartmouth College, analyzed the student loan debt of about 9,000 men and women. He found that young adults from the socioeconomic top-tier tended to be safeguarded from debt because their parents had more accurately anticipated college costs, did more financial planning for college and contributed more money to their children’s education. Students from low-income families had access to financial aid other than loans. Students from middle-income families, meanwhile, took on far more debt than their lower- and higher-income peers.

A big part of the problem, of course, is that college is just too expensive. Borrowing, and borrowing too much, can feel like the only choice.

In August, President Obama announced that over the next 18 months, the Department of Education will create value-based college rankings that should make it easier for all students to avoid excessive debt. But in the meantime, millions of former students are suffering the consequences of mistakes that weren’t entirely their fault.

“The greatest irresponsibility is on the part of government and schools,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “Most people, if offered money, will take it. But in most other cases, when large sums of money are involved, there are controls in place.”

Getting a car loan, for example, requires proof of income. Not so with student loans. And too many students have little idea what kind of earnings they can expect from a particular field of study.

“For a market to work well, it needs information. There’s virtually none in this market,” Carnevale said. “In a lot of ways, it’s entrapment.”

Schools know what they are doing, to some extent. A survey by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, published in October, touches on a range of student debt issues, including how much student debt universities consider reasonable. (A lot.) But the most interesting finding concerns “gapping” — the practice of admitting students to college without providing enough aid for them to enroll. Private colleges are 27 percent more likely to practice gapping than public colleges, but both do it. Troublingly, 53 percent of public college directors said gapping was ethical, along with 74 percent of private college directors.

It is often argued that a college degree confers extra earning ability that more than covers college debt. But as I write this, more than 7 million borrowers are in default on a federal or private student loan, and research has shown that those in default suffer both emotionally and physically.

Considering how close the government came to defaulting, politicians should be able to relate to the plight of those with delinquent student loans. They, and schools, can take a first step by acknowledging their role in the student loan crisis. They can sit in the hole with us for a while.


Sarah Amandolare is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.