Pay off your student loans

A University of Texas at Dallas student wears a mortarboard with the words, "DEBT free," to celebrate her lack of college debt. (Kevin Yang/The University of Texas at Dallas via AP)

Usually, when someone writes an essay about why they defaulted on their student loans, they strain to include details that evoke sympathy: the parents who struggle to feed and clothe their children, and get them to school in a car that is forever breaking down. The hapless victims of places like Corinthian Colleges, first-generation strivers who believed that a degree would give them a ticket out of the grind. The law school graduates taken in by misleading employment statistics, thinking their six-figure debt would be repaid when they got that first law job. The desperate millions who found the financial crisis robbing their parents of the ability to pay tuition while well-paying jobs became a lot harder to come by. Who wouldn’t be sympathetic to any of these folks?

In last weekend’s New York Times, Lee Siegel tried an entirely novel approach: He described his decision in the least sympathetic terms possible. He offered not one good reason that he couldn’t pay his student loans; the best he could do was to say he didn’t want to pay them.

Worse is the contempt he conveys for the drab, plebeian world of state colleges and office jobs, and for the people who work hard for their degrees and then work hard at the best job that will let them pay their bills. You know ... most people.

“Maybe I should have stayed at a store called The Wild Pair,” he writes, “where I once had a nice stable job selling shoes after dropping out of the state college because I thought I deserved better, and naively tried to turn myself into a professional reader and writer on my own, without a college degree. I’d probably be district manager by now.”

Perhaps I’m biased against Siegel because I too dreamed of becoming a writer while slightly hampered by a mountain of student loan debt — high five figures, in my case. And like Siegel, I ultimately decided to follow that dream. The difference is that while following my dreams I also paid off the debt, as I promised to do when I took out the loans for my fancy business school education.

Did this involve selling shoes in my spare time? Was I forced to abandon my ideals and turn to Wall Street for a soul-destroying sellout job? Nope. I paid off my loans by the simple expedient of living on as little as possible in Manhattan.

I found a tiny, subterranean apartment that initially rented for just under a thousand dollars a month. I attended every event that so much as hinted at free food. I didn’t drink unless someone else was buying. I learned to clip coupons, and realized you get a lot more value for your dollar if you don’t insist on the fancy brand-name ramen. I didn’t buy new clothes until the old ones literally had holes in them. During the more temperate months, I wore through the soles of my shoes walking to work, to avoid the cost of public transportation. Every spare dollar I got in freelance money went to that mountain of debt.

Slowly, slowly, this trickle of money wore down the mountain, until my payments dropped from a terrifying 40 percent of my paycheck to a manageable $200 a month. And as I earned more, I paid them off entirely.

Many people are in similar situations. Were we an oppressed class? Some folks from third-tier schools who were misled about the job prospects for graduates might count as oppressed. But those of us who went to top-tier schools and freely signed those promissory notes without anyone putting a gun to our heads have nothing to complain about. We got the degree, we owed the money, we paid it back.

I suspect most of those feel about Siegel’s guiltless confession the way I do: What’s so special about him? He didn’t even get his degree during the inflationary spiral of recent decades; he went to school back when it was possible to work your way through college.

Is there a problem with student loans? Yes. College costs are rising much faster than inflation, and it’s hard to see that they’re actually adding more educational value for the money. Employers who pay low salaries demand educational credentials that are far higher than the wages justify. People whose parents can’t simply front them $100,000 or so to get those credentials are faced with some difficult choices, which is bad for them, and bad for the occupations that are increasingly staffed by a narrow mandarin class.

But the fault is ultimately with the colleges, and with the employers, not with the banks that lend you the money to fulfill their demands. Going back on your promises does nothing to change the behavior of the true culprits; it punishes a bank whose mistake was lending you money. Of course, the borrower is punished as well. Siegel may be unpleasantly surprised when he discovers that the government garnishes the Social Security checks of people whose student loans are still in default.

But Siegel did not make a case for changing the system. He argued only that someone else should have to pay for his education. Namely: other borrowers. Perhaps the district manager of the place that sells him his shoes.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist.