Aides for Martin O'Malley's presidential campaign said that the former governor and his wife had accumulated nearly $340,000 in debt putting two children through college for their undergraduate degrees. The level of debt that Mr. O'Malley has incurred is way off the charts; the average baccalaureate recipient is graduating with about $29,000 in debt, and one-third of all students are graduating without any student loans at all. But Mr. O'Malley wants to craft federal financial aid policy based on his own unrepresentative experience.
This is a political maneuver designed to deliver red meat to the masses. Student loan debt in this country has never been less fashionable, yet many of the stories that are written about it use inflated figures of astronomical proportions. This hyperbole does little but scare the millions of prospective students who can and should use responsible borrowing as a way to fund their education.
Do many students graduate with student debt? Yes. But the level of debt that students are incurring is often greatly exaggerated in the media. In fact, last year the Brookings Institution released a study that showed 58 percent of students graduate with less than $10,000 in debt and another 18 percent have between $10,000 and $20,000.
Mr. O'Malley is calling on states to immediately freeze public tuition rates. He's also suggesting that tuition rates be no more than 10 percent of the state median income at four-year public universities and no more than 5 percent of the median income at two-year public colleges. In Michigan the median income for a family of four is about $75,000, which means that under Mr. O'Malley's plan tuition at my institution would have to be rolled back to $7,500 per year and at a two-year community college it would be half that. Tuition at Michigan State University for an in-state freshman this fall is $13,612. Where is the nearly $6,000 going to come from? States, according to Mr. O'Malley's website, have slashed higher education investments by an average of 20 percent per student since 2008. In Michigan and in other states the drop has been even more precipitous.
To Mr. O'Malley's credit, he is calling on states to restore investment in higher education. It's very difficult for public universities to hold down tuition prices when state governments continue to defund higher education.
When parents hear $340,000 in debt they immediately question whether or not they can send their children to college. But the level of debt the O'Malleys have is certainly not the norm and was likely taken on with the knowledge that Mr. O'Malley's earning potential would rise in the future, after he left office and took on lucrative speaking engagements. Responsible borrowing is still a good way to invest in your education. All the studies show that it truly is an investment in your future.
While I applaud Mr. O'Malley for wanting to do something about college affordability, his first step should not be seeking a debt-free solution, and it should not be limiting what states can charge in tuition. These are unrealistic policy proposals that will only serve to detract from discussion of more important issues. We must figure out how to convince states to restore investment in higher education. Reinvestment in higher education from states will bring the costs of higher education down, which will have students leaving our institutions with less debt.
Institutions of higher learning are labor intensive, and there's no doubt they need to do their part to reduce the debt burdens of graduates. However, students carrying some debt isn't problematic; in fact, I'd argue it's a good thing. Having some skin in the game helps students commit to the investment they are making.
We'd be better served by pragmatic politicians who understand this than individuals who want to impose death sentences on the institutions that are helping citizens better themselves.
Donald Heller is dean of Michigan State University's College of Education. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.