College Loan Debt: Former Students Strike the Wrong Pose

English: ITT Technical Institute Canton, Michi...
English: ITT Technical Institute Canton, Michigan campus, 1905 South Haggerty Road (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I saw the Bloomberg headline “Former ITT Tech Students Launch Debt Strike” (September 14),  I assumed the students were upset with the US government for effectively shutting down the for-profit educational chain. After all, it occurred to me, there were probably many students left hanging by Washington’s shenanigans. I’d be upset too if I was most of the way through a degree program and government bureaucrats suddenly made it impossible for my school of choice to continue operating.

I was wrong about their reasons, though. The students (some of whom attended Corinthian, another for-profit chain) racked up big-time debt by making poor decisions. Instead of blaming themselves (or, if they were defrauded, ITT or Corinthian) for that debt, they’re blaming the people who loaned them the money they blew:

“We trusted that education would lead to a better life,” the Corinthian debt strikers write in an open letter to the US Department of Education, “And we trusted you to ensure that the education system in this country would do so. … Each month you force us to make payments into an immoral system that profits from our aspirations. … To the Department of Education and to the lenders, servicers, and guarantee agencies who have stolen our futures, we say: enough! Erase these loans.”

Look, I sympathize. As a callow youth, I attended but quickly dropped out of college with some student loan debt. It wasn’t the huge debt a full four-year degree would have entailed, but yeah, it was hard. I fell behind, defaulted and eventually my wages were garnished to pay it off.

But for some reason it just never occurred to me to hold anyone else — the bank, the government, society — responsible for me getting myself into debt.

Yes, the government certainly bears some responsibility for the size of student debt. As then-Secretary of Education William Bennett wrote in the New York Times in 1987,  “increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase. … Federal student aid policies do not cause college price inflation, but there is little doubt that they help make it possible.”

So yes, college has become more expensive over the years, resulting bigger debt loads, partly because of government education subsidies. And it may be that that should be taken into account and some of that debt partly forgiven as part of an agenda that ends such subsidies.

But no, the government didn’t make you borrow the money. To reverse president Barack Obama’s adage, if you’ve got a student loan debt — you built that. Nobody else made that happen. Any discussion of fixing it starts with you owning up.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Also published on Medium.

  • Steve Trinward

    I would say that agitating for a lower interest rate, on a sliding scale based on your reliability in paying it back, would be legitimate here. A big part of the problem has been how “lenders” (with full backing and encouragement from govt) have been able to Shylock the process, so that even honorable repayments only scratch the surface. Since the problem stems largely from deceptive promotion of these schools as “the answer to all your problems,” there might be some validity in reducing the rates at least.

  • Thank you. As soon as I saw the news about it, I went through exactly the same steps and intended to write about the absurdity of it. Personal responsibility is apparently antiquated. :/

    • Yeah, I guess so.

      Thing is, I could come up with a reasonable case for the debt strike, and for student loan forgiveness.

      Back when I had student loans, they were done through “private banks” — the government just guaranteed the loans so the banks weren’t at risk.

      My impression is that these days, most student loans just come directly from the government.

      And it’s that same government that has driven college tuition through the roof.

      Going by regular CPI inflation calculation, tuition at “public” universities today should be about 2.5-3 times as much as it was 30 years ago. It’s actually more like 6.5 times as much.

      So I could see people saying wow, I just realized that the government is ripping me off for more than twice what my college education should cost, so guess what, I’m going to stiff government on repayment of that.

      But these guys are only blaming the government for their bad choices in picking an educational institution (or, alternatively, for fraud committed by said institution if that’s the case).