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C. Fraser Smith: Left a loan, students drown in debt

Created in part by government action and inaction, the student loan crisis flashes on our collective radar screen with the help of freshman U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Maybe she hasn’t been in Washington long enough to understand that nothing can be done.

As a recent book suggests about the Congress, this picture of governmental failure is even worse than you think.

It’s not just student loan debt we’re talking about. That $1.2 trillion overhang from college threatens to disrupt the progression of young people into the mainstream of this consumer economy.

“Instead of using education to build economic security,” Warren said, “inefficient and ineffective education policy is hollowing out our middle class.”

Enormous student debt — averaging $25,000, give or take — means young people have limited financial ability to buy cars, houses and other earmarks of middle-class life.

So, it’s not just the feckless 1 percent that’s killing the American Dream. It’s dumb government policy as well.

Warren’s leadership on this issue may bring along some of her colleagues. Maryland senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin — both of whom have supported improvements often in the past — are among her allies.

After a roundtable on the issues Thursday at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Mikulski said: “We must reduce interest rates and increase graduation rates.” This is particularly true since much of the interest rates are charged by our very own government.

Cardin echoed Warren’s analysis: “By allowing students to drown in debt, we risk their future and we are shortchanging the future of our national and regional economies by pricing certain Americans out of the college market.” College graduates earn appreciably more than those who don’t or can’t afford college.

Elected public officials used to be a lot smarter, apparently. At every level, they behaved as if strong support for education was a no-brainer. Voters demanded it. The nation’s future depended on it.

Even then, the system of educating and preparing citizens, business leaders and public servants was too costly. Belated attention to the issue now might make education policy more far-sighted.

Some political leaders have acted as if education can be ignored without consequence — for them or for us.

The numbers alone might have gotten someone’s attention. But maybe numbers have lost their impact. When you’re talking more than a trillion in student debt, the whole thing gets a bit abstract.

Maybe the number was abstract for the borrower as well. Maybe he or she justified the borrowing with a rosier view of the future than now seems justified: I’ll have a decent job, so I’ll pay it all back soon enough. Reality: Decent jobs are not guaranteed in today’s marketplace. Retiring debt becomes a much higher hurdle.

National political leaders might find inspiration to act in the views of a UMBC student who spoke during Thursday’s roundtable. He has no concerns with college tuition and expects to graduate with no debt — thanks to a handful of scholarships.

Chris Harried, a third-year political science major, said strong mentors helped him secure scholarship offers from a number of prestigious area universities. One of 12 children in his family, he’s the first to make it to university.

Raised by his two grandmothers, he prospered in high school. He was a student member of the city school board. He said a lot of his friends and classmates probably didn’t make it to higher education because they didn’t have the support he had. They didn’t know what was available.

(Cardin and Mikulski reported that over 6 million students who were eligible for Pell grants did not apply. Why isn’t that problem getting solved?)

Looking forward to graduation, Harried said in an interview, he wants to work at a university helping others solve financial and other problems that stifle ambition. He’s the first in his family to be college-bound, and he promises not to be the last.

“I have the moral responsibility to share what [he has learned]. … I have to do my part as a civic leader. I have to adequately contribute,” he said.

Moral responsibility … My part as a civic leader … Adequately contribute?

Worth considering.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.