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Why one man defaulted on his student loans and suggests you should too

In the debate over the high cost of college and the burden of student loan debt, you don't often see loan default presented as a viable solution to the problem. 

But in a Sunday New York Times op-ed -- Why I Defaulted on my Student Loans -- writer Lee Siegel explains why he did just that, and seems to encourage others to do the same.  

"As difficult as it has been, I’ve never looked back," he writes. "The millions of young people today, who collectively owe over $1 trillion in loans, may want to consider my example." 

He explains in the piece that, years after taking out his student loans to pay for college: 

I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.

Fairness and responsibility aside, there are plenty of consequences for neglecting student loan debt. As one example, the Department of Education can garnish your wages -- up to 15% of your disposable pay-- without first getting a judgment in court. That's not even getting into what defaulting could do to your credit. So is he seriously recommending people follow his example?

In the video above, he calls it a "suggestion, not an exhortation," because the "situation has to change." 

Siegel asserts student loans are the only debt that's not dischargeable in bankruptcy. According the office of the Department of Education, that's not the case:  

In certain situations, you can have your federal student loan forgiven, canceled, or discharged ... If you file Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you may have your loan discharged in bankruptcy only if the bankruptcy court finds that repayment would impose undue hardship on you and your dependents. This must be decided in an adversary proceeding in bankruptcy court. 

Siegel says he doesn't advocate people go out and destroy their lives, but tells us he believes "in an ideal situation, things will only change because of some kind of crisis," such as a national boycott. And he questions why higher education isn't free. 

Decades later, the Department of Education is still pursuing Siegel's unpaid balance, he writes. But as far as offering examples from his experience of the financial consequences someone would suffer if they did default, he declined to give us any specifics.  

And you can see his response to an example of the criticism of the argument he makes in the op-ed in the video below. The Slate response we asked him about, for example, argues the New York Times should apologize for the "awful" op-ed. One criticism is that Siegel laments the debt burden and limitations of simply "going to college," when the writer appears to have received a B.A., an M.A. and a masters of philosophy from the prestigious (and very expensive private school) Columbia University.