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GREG HARTON: Student loans look attractive, but can become heavy, lasting burden

by Greg Harton | June 13, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Student debt in the United States totals more than $1.6 trillion.

That's an eye-popping number that's ballooned in recent years, to the point that student loans are now one of the largest forms of consumer debt in the nation. It's a number that has grown significantly during the pandemic because many of those with loans took advantage of the opportunity to forgo payments for months.

More than 43 million U.S. borrowers owe money on student loans.

You'll remember the situation has become so troubling that presidential politics gets drawn into a debate over the enormous economic burden it all represents on the American public. Some federal politicians have called for a federal program to eliminate the outstanding debt. Others have argued for a way to forgive $10,000, $20,000 or even $50,000 in people's student debt.

People who have long forgotten what it was like to be a college student are still paying their obligations from their four, five or six years on campus. I've spoken with friends who carry the debt with them like a stone hung round their necks. They simply settle in and assume their monthly payments are a life sentence.

My son just graduated high school so we're inundated with enticements to take out student loans, either through the government or through private lenders. Of course, those mailings make it all sound so easy, offering multi-year loans to cover myriad expenses.

All I see in my imagination is a student digging a hole, not quite recognizing that he's caught in the deepest part of it as he keeps digging.

Just the other day I saw an email from the Arkansas Attorney General's Office warning students to "be cautious of scammers trying to take advantage." The AG's office could just as well issue a warning about legitimate student loans. They'll all quickly bury a student in money that almost seems like it's free, but the loans are setting up financial barriers to each student's post-college success from the get-go.

Naturally, some folks will say lower-income people don't stand a chance to get a college education without loans. I do not diminish the challenge paying for college presents. But so many people do not realize the decades of heartache in store for themselves after they graduate. For many, and this can certainly be the case in Arkansas, pay for someone with a college education may not set them up for success when they already have the anchor of student debt around their necks.

And how many graduate ready to capitalize on their full-time careers without realizing how that debt constrains them? Even with a college education, they simply cannot get ahead and it's exacerbated with new car purchases, a boat we all think we deserve after all the hard work, and, naturally, a house that's more than we can afford but is "necessary" because everyone else is living in a big house.

For too many people, student loans become a perpetual monthly obligation.

What's the answer? For those with existing debt, I don't know that there is one other than living below one's means and dedicating one's life to paying off the debt. For those planning for college, it means getting jobs, pursing scholarships as though their lives depend on it, and making sure any loans taken out have some reasonable relationship to the kind of pay the college degree will empower them to demand once they graduate.

Do not use student loans to finance a college "lifestyle." Do everything within your power to avoid debt. If you are using loans, limit their use to actual education expenses -- books, tuition, fees, etc. It just makes sense that if you're going to dig yourself into a hole, you ought to make it as shallow as possible.

Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.


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