Student Loans: Bankrupting the American Dream

my children’s student loans are forgiven … if I die. You heard me right. If I take out a Parent Plus loan and I die, the student loans will be forgiven. Unfortunately, this isn’t an attractive financial planning strategy.

As freshmen move into college dorms across the country, many parents and students will be thinking about the crushing weight the associated debt will have on their futures. Both my children went to private universities, adding up to close to a staggering $500,000 in tuition and fees. That means I have to earn nearly twice that amount to afford to pay taxes before paying off their student loans. For most Americans, this is unsustainable. Worse, it is literally killing the American dream.

Student loan debt has risen to $1.2 trillion, outpacing credit card debt. Recent reports, studies and surveys show that young Americans are putting off buying homes, starting families and opening businesses because of crippling student loan debt. Parents are also sacrificing: putting off retirement and thereby adding to our nation’s unemployment woes.

While our economy is struggling to bounce back from the recession, and every presidential candidate is campaigning on jobs and the economy, it is the cost of higher education that should be at the top of the agenda. It is the elephant in the room that no one wants to face.
Parents should not ignore student loan debt as an economical way to give children the best inheritance possible and keep their own financial plans on track. The government has plenty of options to help. There is the American Opportunity Tax Credit, debt forgiveness for public service, scholarships grants, Coverdell accounts, 529 plans, Parent Plus loans, Stafford-subsidized loans and the D.C. tuition assistance grant. (You may need a graduate degree just to figure out the fine print.) But, at the end of the day, these programs are like pistol shots at a ballistic missile. Further, it has been argued that their existence has accelerated tuition increases.

Why is the solution more debt on the backs of American taxpayers? The IRS allows people to invest pre-tax in retirement accounts knowing that they will generate more revenue when they take it out. (While this may help offset the cost to society, the biggest beneficiary is Wall Street.) Why is education any different? If we were to allow education to be a pre-tax payment, since college graduates earn more on average than non-college graduates, it would be a win-win for the students and for our economy. On top of that, placing reasonable caps on tuition deductions may put downward pressure on tuition costs as universities compete to attract the best and the brightest.

Along with the simple steps parents can take to make student loan payments a manageable part of their financial plans, there are simple steps we should be taking as a country to address this crisis. Until we do, student loans will continue to bankrupt our wallets and the American dream.


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