Beth Akers & Matthew Chingos: Does the public narrative about student debt reflect reality?

Are we headed for a major student loan crisis with borrowers defaulting in unprecedented numbers? In Game of LoansBeth Akers and Matthew Chingos draw on new evidence to explain why such fears are misplaced—and how the popular myth distracts from what they say are the real problems facing student lending in America. The authors recently took the time to answer some questions about the book.

In Game of Loans you argue that the public narrative about student debt has become disconnected from the reality. How do you suppose this has happened?

It’s tough to say precisely, but it’s clear that the media coverage of this issue has played a role. The typical borrower we hear about in news stories about student loan debt tends to have an enormous balance, is unemployed or working a low-paying job, and lives with his or her parents to save money on living expenses. These struggling borrowers are real, and their problems are troubling, but they are outliers in the broader picture of student borrowing in the United States. A 2014 analysis of 100 recent news stories about student debt found that the borrowers profiled had an average debt in excess of $85,000, nearly three times the average borrowing of college graduates with debt. Given the prevailing media coverage, it’s unsurprising that many people are confused.

The public narrative about this issue commonly refers to the state of student lending as a crisis. You argue that this is a mischaracterization of the issue. Why is that?

There is no evidence of a widespread, systemic student loan crisis, in which the typical borrower is buried in debt for a college education that did not pay off. The crisis that permeates public discussion is a manufactured narrative based largely on anecdotes, speculation, shoddy research, and inappropriate framing of the issue. The reality is that large debt balances are exceedingly rare; typical borrowers face modest monthly payments (4 percent of monthly income at the median); the government provides a system of safety nets; and borrowers with the largest balances are typically the best-off because of high earnings.

There is not a single student loan crisis, but there are many crises, ranging from the fact that most students have no more than a vague idea of how much they’ve borrowed, to the hundreds of thousands of borrowers needlessly defaulting on their student loans, to the pockets of students who are making decisions that lead to predictably bad completion and repayment outcomes.

Critics of your argument might suggest that you’re doing more harm than good by dismissing the notion of a crisis. Even if the language used to describe the situation in student lending is exaggerated, isn’t a good thing if it draws public attention to an issue in need of policy reform?

The problem with allowing an inaccurate narrative to persist is that it prompts policy solutions that solve the fictional problems and do little or nothing to help borrowers who really are in need of assistance. A good example of this is the prominent efforts to reduce the interest rates on existing loans under the guise of “refinancing.” The idea has been vigorously promoted by Senator Elizabeth Warren and endorsed by Hillary Clinton. But reducing interest rates on existing loans would provide a big handout to affluent borrowers and do close to nothing for truly struggling borrowers, who tend to have small balances.

It seems that the crux of your argument is that the notion of a macro level crisis in student lending obscures the real problems. So, what are the real problems?

The real problems can be seen in the stories of borrowers struggling to pay back their loans or suffering the consequences of default. Generally, crises occur when students are “underwater” on their educational investment. They’ve paid the price, aren’t seeing the benefit they’ve anticipated, and are stuck with the bill.

One reason students get into this position is because historically we’ve had a dearth of information available on college cost and quality for students to use when shopping for college. This has gotten better recently, but we’ve still got a ways to go in helping students make savvy choices regarding college.

But even with perfect information and rigorous decision making, some students will inevitably find themselves with difficulty repaying their debt. In the existing system, the government offers a pretty robust system of repayment safety nets that exist to ensure that borrowers will never have to face an unaffordable loan payment. Unfortunately, the system of safety nets is incredibly complex for consumers to navigate. And it’s very likely that this complexity has meant that many borrowers in need of assistance did not receive it. In the book, we propose simplifying the system of both borrowing for and repayment of federal loans to alleviate this problem.

LoansBeth Akers is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Matthew M. Chingos is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and the coauthor of Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (Princeton). Together, they are the authors of Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt.