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Is the Media Making the Student Loan Crisis Worse by Talking About It?

Lisa Scherzer
Personal Finance Editor
The Exchange

By Zac Bissonnette

When I was in high school in the mid-2000s, there was a history teacher who took perverse delight in scaring us about the lifetime of debt we were about to sign up for. “You’re gonna be paying off those bills for the rest of your life,” he told us, and I remember worrying that the inevitability he addressed student loans with might lull students into helplessness — and, perversely, discourage them from doing everything they could to minimize their borrowing.

Over the past few years, it seems, the media has adopted his approach to student loans: warning that there’s a crisis, talking about the macroeconomic factors driving increased college costs, and endless numbers of stories on borrowers who can't afford their loan payments.

A sensationalistic 2011 New York magazine cover story with the headline “The University Has No Clothes” quoted experts dropping figures about the $200,000 cost of college (most students attend schools that are far less expensive and of those who do go to schools that expensive, most have their cost of attendance reduced by financial aid), and noted that “college education will likely saddle [students] with crippling debt[.]” Former Secretary of Education William Bennett recently published a book full of stories about students leaving school with massive debt loads, and every week it seems like a story goes viral on the trillion dollars in student loan debt facing the country.

The reality: A third of students don’t borrow at all; among the two-thirds who do borrow, the average debt load for each borrower getting a B.A. in 2013 is about $30,000, according to Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on student loans and financial aid and publisher of Edvisors Network, an educational resource for parents and students. That’s slightly higher than the average loan on a new car – more than $25,000 as of 2012 – which is not the subject of endless stories about crippling debt. He also notes in a 2012 paper that overall, 1.5% of all undergraduate and graduate students graduated with six-figure student loan debt in 2007-08, and the vast majority of those with that level of debt were graduate and professional students.

So a plea to journalists reporting on college costs and the student loan crisis: Do as many stories on the one-third of students graduating with no debt as you do on the less than 1% of students graduating with $100,000 or more in debt. When you report on the crisis facing recent grads with $50,000 in loans, be sure to note that that figure comes more from bad decisions than a macroeconomic problem; that doesn’t make their situations any less worthy of sympathy and attention, nor does it mean student loans aren’t a problem. After all, student loan balances are now greater than other types of consumer debt except for residential mortgages. But it is important for readers to know they can be avoided.

In 2011 Kantrowitz published a paper that everyone who has a child in high school should read immediately: Characteristics of College Students Who Graduate With No Debt. His findings: 85% of zero debtors went to a public college. While having wealthy parents certainly impacted debt levels, it’s not as big of a factor as you might think. According to Kantrowitz, “56% of upper-income undergraduate students graduated with no debt, compared with 36% of low-income students and 45% of middle-income students.”

There’s some evidence that this approach of emphasizing the percentage of students who aren’t saddling themselves with excessive debt will lead to better outcomes than trying to scare people about worst-case scenarios. At the University of Arizona in the late 1990s, health official Koreen Johannessen devised an ad campaign that emphasized all the students who weren't drinking excessively: Surveys showed that most students had four or fewer drinks when they partied, and Johannessen wanted to make sure that everyone knew that. That ad campaign helped to reduce excessive drinking by 29%, making it one of the most successful anti-binge drinking PSAs in history. If accentuating the positive can help prevent college students from getting drunk, there are no limits to the problems it can solve.

Zac Bissonnette graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2011 and is the author of "Debt-Free U," the "best and most troubling book ever about the college admissions process," according to The Washington Post.