Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- A college degree was once synonymous with academic excellence and workforce readiness. Today, it seems synonymous with debt and underemployment.
Last week, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that student loan debt increased to $956 billion, more than auto loan debt or credit card debt. More worrisome, the student loan 90-day delinquency rate increased to 11% this past quarter and for the first time exceeds the "serious delinquency" rate for credit card debt.
Student loan debt is reaching bubble-bursting levels. By comparison, in October 2007, the start of the subprime mortgage crisis, 16% of subprime mortgages were 90 days delinquent, according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. By January 2008 it accelerated to 21%. If the economy heads off the fast-approaching fiscal cliff and tax rates spike for lower- and middle-class Americans, it may accelerate student loan defaults to crisis levels. The big banks got their taxpayer bailout; taxpayers may soon be on the hook for another.
Even if the markets manage to avoid another debt crisis, the mountain of student loan debt is already taking its toll on a weak economy.
Unlike credit card debt or automobile loans, student loans are virtually impossible to liquidate, even after declaring bankruptcy. So 20- and 30-year-olds buried under student loan debt are forced to put off other purchases crucial to the health of the economy, like buying a car or home or investing in the markets. Many are moving back in with their parents and delaying marriage and starting a family, two of the most vital building blocks to a healthy and prosperous economy. Valuable human capital is withering before it can even set its roots.
The problem now rests in the hands, and wallets, of taxpayers. In 2010, the federal government consolidated its power in the student loan industry so it could eliminate private middlemen and directly issue and guarantee loans. By 2011-12, the federal government issued 93% of all student loans.
By nature, student loans are inherently risky. Students have hardly any credit worthiness. But the government is making a bad situation even worse. Federal lenders are notoriously lax. For example, they don't distinguish between loans to students pursuing highly employable fields such as health and education, and students pursuing majors that have a high unemployment rate, like architecture and arts.
And yet, the federal government continues to flood the higher education market with more loans. In 2010, the Department of Education distributed $133 billion in student aid. In 2011, it was nearly $157 billion, a 17% increase. As I've said before, these increased subsidies have not curtailed student loan debt or tuition costs.
What's driving this debt crisis is a vicious cycle of bad lending policies eerily similar to the causes of the subprime mortgage crisis. Over the past 50 years, it has become conventional wisdom that everyone should go to college. High school guidance counselors and college admissions offices preach it, parents believe it and politicians cater to it. With near-universal demand and parents willing to pay or borrow almost anything to get their son or daughter through college, colleges and universities can drive up their prices.
When tuition prices rise, the government subsidizes the difference by increasing federal loans. But these easy loans, many of which are increasingly going to middle-class students, only increase the price ceiling that colleges can charge, thus completing, or starting, the cycle.
Of course, these aren't the only problems in today's higher education financial crisis. Many colleges and universities are failing at their most basic responsibility: education. Students are graduating ill-equipped for the needs of the modern workforce. More than half of all college graduates in 2010-11 were unemployed or dramatically underemployed. Many employers rate college graduates today as unprepared or only somewhat prepared for the job.
Reform is needed at many levels. Money-hungry institutions should be subject to more accountability and transparency; uninformed consumers should be aware of the alternatives to four-year colleges like trade and technical schools; and irresponsible federal lending needs to be reined in.
But above all, American society at large must stop pushing the notion that everyone should, or deserves, to go to a four-year college. It took a recession and massive taxpayer bailout for Americans to realize that not everyone should, or deserves, to own a home. We can't afford to learn this lesson the hard way again.
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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.